More muscle, with eye on China

The Pentagon is engaged in an extensive buildup of military forces in Asia as part of a covert strategy to strengthen and position U.S. and allied forces to deter — or defeat — China.

The buildup includes changes in deployments of aircraft-carrier battle groups, the conversion of nuclear-missile submarines and the regular dispatch of bombers to areas close to targets in China, according to senior Bush administration officials and a three-month investigation by The Washington Times.

Other less-visible activities that are part of what is being called a “hedge” strategy include large-scale military maneuvers, increased military alliances and training with Asian allies, the transfer of special-operations commando forces to Asia and new requirements for military personnel to learn Chinese.

President Bush approved elements of the first phase of the strategy within the past several months. The key architect is Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. The State Department’s point man on the strategy is Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, who has led three rounds of strategic talks with China in the past several months.

Mr. Bush will express U.S. concerns about China’s hidden military buildup during his meeting today with Chinese President Hu Jintao, but will not discuss the hedge strategy, administration officials said.

Officials said the objective of the Asian buildup is to dissuade China from becoming a hostile power and to have the military capability to swiftly defeat the communist nation in a conflict using military forces that are forward-deployed in Asia or are available to be moved on short notice from Alaska, Hawaii, California and elsewhere.

Bush administration national security officials said most of the military moves are being carried out in ways designed to avoid provoking Beijing. Masking the buildup is not strategic deception, they said, but is part of what is called strategic denial: playing down the focus on China and highlighting the global nature of overall U.S. military transformation.

I’m partly saying to them, ‘Look, if you, the Chinese, are not transparent as you grow and you become more influential, and you add to your military, you will recognize that others are going to respond to that,’?” Mr. Zoellick told The Times. “And if you are not transparent, if you’re not emphasizing cooperation with people, they’re going to respond in ways that build their defenses, not only their own military defenses but how they work with others.”

Japan, Australia, India and nations in Southeast Asia also share U.S. worries about China, he said.

A senior defense official involved in Asia policy said the rapid force transformation that Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld approved will take place in three to five years. It will give U.S. forces in Asia and other parts of the world much more power and speedier response times to international crises, whether they involve China, North Korea or Iran.

The island of Guam in the western Pacific Ocean is a key element in the plan because strategic bombers deployed there can reach targets throughout Asia within three hours. A total of $5 billion is being spent to improve the U.S. territory for ships, submarines and bombers.

Much of the force enhancement involves naval weaponry. For example, the Navy is reorganizing the operating methods of aircraft-carrier battle groups in ways that will double their ability to project power. Once transformed in two or three years, the Pentagon can dispatch four carrier battle groups at once in Asia. In the past, because of maintenance schedules and crew limitations, only two carriers were battle-ready on short notice.

Other planned naval enhancements in Asia include the deployment to Guam of attack submarines and the addition of two strategic missile submarines, and perhaps as many as four. The converted boomers, as the missile submarines are called, each will be outfitted with up to 150 cruise missiles.

The large missile submarines also will play a key role in moving special-operations forces covertly to conflict areas in Asia. The Pentagon is considering the deployment of the 1st Special Operations Group to Japan, officials said. Marine commandos also are being readied to be able to counter the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Adm. Michael Mullen, chief of naval operations, said concerns about China are “fairly significant, and I think it’s fair to say that it’s growing.”

To meet the challenge, the Navy will add one more carrier battle group to its Pacific Fleet. Additionally, it is shifting 60 percent of submarine forces to the Pacific and Asia in the next few years.

“Obviously, the outcome I seek is one of peace and security and stability,” Adm. Mullen said during a recent breakfast with reporters. “There are just a lot of questions about the significance of the Chinese investment in missiles, in submarines, in ships, in technology, in capabilities that make you wonder, ‘Why so much so fast?’ And clearly, putting ourselves in what I would call a strong deterrent position is very important.”

The buildup by the Air Force in Asia includes plans to upgrade Anderson Air Force Base in Guam so strategic bombers, including B-2 and B-1 bombers, can be based there for faster deployment. The bomber forces will be part of Air Expeditionary Forces that are moved there routinely on temporary but regular deployment.

The defense official said the bomber forces, which are equipped with a large number of precision-guided bombs such as cruise missiles and Joint Direct Attack Munitions, are “creating a capability that is exponentially more powerful in a new location.”

“I don’t think that is missed by people [in the region],” the official said, noting that North Korea already has protested bomber deployments in Guam.

Additionally, the Pentagon plans to build a new long-range strategic bomber in the next 15 years that will have the capability to conduct deep strikes in Asia with a large number of precision-guided munitions.

The U.S. ground forces’ role in the Asia strategy will include repositioning forces in the Western United States, Japan and Guam. The Pentagon plans to dispatch the headquarters of the Army’s I Corps, now based at Fort Lewis, Wash., to Japan in the coming years to be ready to fight in Asia.

The Marines also are moving the headquarters element of the Marine force from Okinawa to Guam. The transfer is part of a force realignment in Japan, but a Marine general revealed last year that the deployment to Guam will have the added benefit of protecting the headquarters against a decapitating missile attack from China or North Korea.

Missile defenses also play a role in the strategy. The current system — designed to stop long-range missiles from North Korea — will be adapted in the coming years, both through U.S. enhancements and development of a Japanese missile defense system.

The force restructuring has been accompanied by public statements by high-ranking U.S. military and civilian defense officials who have tried to minimize the U.S. activities and emphasize that China, which itself is involved in an aggressive arms buildup, poses no immediate threat.

The low-key approach is similar to China’s strategy of building up its forces in ways designed to avoid provoking the “hegemon,” what China has used as code for the United States in its internal military and Communist Party writings. Outwardly, China continues to insist that its military and economic growth pose no threat.

“The Chinese, tragically, have brought this on themselves,” said Michael Pillsbury, a China affairs specialist who first identified China’s covert anti-U.S. strategy for the Pentagon several years ago. “Their history and culture make it impossible for China to accept American leadership and forces them to use secrecy and subterfuge in their buildup, while ignoring Secretary Rumsfeld’s appeals for openness.”

Other elements of the hedge strategy include development of systems that will be capable of countering Chinese space weapons, which are viewed as a future threat. The Pentagon also has directed the military to develop Chinese-language skills and to have a cadre of Chinese speakers available if the military needs to “surge” its ability to communicate in the language. The requirement was couched in terms of learning several other languages as priorities, as well, including Farsi and Central Asian languages.

Adm. William J. Fallon, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, declined to directly address the China elements of the hedge strategy. In an e-mail exchange, Adm. Fallon said the force “transformation actions presuppose neither a specific potential adversary nor discrete threat.”

Military exercises in Asia also will play a key role in the hedge strategy. The Navy this summer plans the largest aircraft-carrier exercises in the Pacific in decades. Naval maneuvers slated to begin in June in the western Pacific will include three carrier strike groups. Each group includes at least three warships, an attack submarine and a support ship.

Two carrier groups then will participate in Pacific Rim exercises in July near Hawaii. Those will include forces from Australia, Japan, South Korea, Chile, Peru and other nations. An August naval exercise will include an Atlantic Fleet carrier.

Additional military exercises are being held with U.S. friends and allies. For example, the Navy’s 7th Fleet currently holds 100 exercises per year and will increase that number. It will include exercises with India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan.

“The Chinese or anybody else has to ask themselves: ‘What is it the Americans are doing differently now with their carrier battle groups … that allows them to do this now and will allow them to do it any time they want to?’?” the senior defense official said.

The answer is different operating procedures, including a changed maintenance schedule and “crew swapping,” in which crews on ships are replaced with fresh, land-based sailors to allow for longer deployments.

“You’re creating a capability that you didn’t have before just by the way that you’re operating the same basket of assets you had before,” the official said. “So this is a big signal. Now is this a hedge? I guess it’s a hedge that says we can’t predict where we’re going to have to fight, so we’re going to have to be organized differently.”

All branches of the U.S. military also have been conducting secret war games that use China as an adversary. The war games have been kept secret to avoid alerting the Chinese.

Officially, the branches are told to conduct exercises at higher rates than they did in the past and to consider a range of adversaries, including China. The true purpose, however, is to be prepared to respond to a Chinese military move against Taiwan, an attempt by China to seize oil-rich territory in Russia or Southeast Asia, or to control strategic sea lanes from the Middle East to Asia, defense officials said.

Mr. Zoellick said his talks with the Chinese have been helpful in trying to persuade China to become a responsible “stakeholder” in the current U.S.-led international system but that Beijing’s doubts remain.

The Chinese are wary of the current international system and recognize U.S. leadership of it but have not accepted the sole superpower role.

“I don’t get a sense that they don’t feel they can work with the United States,” Mr. Zoellick said. “But I think they, of course, want to assess under what terms and whose rules.” China’s questions “really go more to stakeholder in an international system and who defines the system,” he said.