Washington - The top U.S. Army commander in the Indo-Pacific recently gave a ground-up view of the challenges posed by China's military buildup in the region, citing munitions shortage as among the areas the United States should strengthen to effectively deter potential Chinese aggression.
"I've been watching the ground forces and the PLA [People's Liberation Army] since 2014," Commanding General Charles A. Flynn of U.S. Army Pacific told an audience in Washington last week. He was on a rare break from the Indo-Pacific theater, where he started off as Commanding General of the 25th Infantry Division based in Hawaii.
Sitting alongside U.S. Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth, Flynn described China's military forces as extraordinary and "on a historical trajectory," noting that "they're rehearsing, practicing, experimenting, and they're preparing those forces for something."
He shared with the audience gathered at the American Enterprise Institute the steady buildup of the Chinese military's presence and capacity in the Indo-Pacific region from 2014 to today, highlighting force reorganization combined with modernization that China undertook in 2015, and the establishment of newly structured theater commands that ensued.
Flynn said that by 2018, China had built and armed artificial islands in the South China Sea while ramping up joint operations. Today, he observes a significant increase of "payload of activities that they're doing with all of their services, from the rocket forces to the strategic support forces, to space, cyber, land and sea."
"Absent them slowing down, that's a dangerous trajectory that they're on," he warned.
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Flynn noted three advantages China currently holds over the United States.
"They're operating on what's called interior lines. They're right next to their primary objective. And make no doubt about it - the prize is Taiwan and the land."
"The second thing they have is, they have mass," [I.E., numbers], he continued.
"And then, of course, they have magazine depth." "They have a lot of munitions, a lot of arrows in their quiver," Flynn explained.
The magazine depth issue is a "real one," Wormuth said, telling the audience that America needs to recalibrate its strategy on munitions supplies.
"Everything we're seeing in Ukraine shows us that we have to ramp up production," Wormuth pointed out, especially considering a protracted conflict.
The current U.S. peacetime supply chain model falls short of demand, she warned, while sharing with the audience that the U.S. Army has already taken steps to bolster strength in this area.
"We're doing a lot in the Army to ramp up our own organic industrial base, and to work very closely with industry to see them ramp up their industrial base," she said.
The Army chief acknowledged that "logistics will be very hard in the Indo-Pacific in the event of a conflict," and said the Army is focusing on this area of preparedness.
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The Army is creating what Flynn called "joint interior lines" to both bolster and deter against a background of the Chinese military's footprint of expansion in the Indo-Pacific.
Among the significant footprints China has amassed in the region are 12 airfields that fall under China's Western Theater Command, "most of them [are] the size of Dulles," Flynn pointed out, referring to the huge international airport located just outside of Washington.
The Western Theater Command, one of the five military commands established on Chinese President Xi Jinping's watch, exercises operational jurisdiction over China's borders with Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Myanmar.
Adding to the above, Beijing has also moved two army corps to be positioned along the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border between China and India, built heliports and surface-to-air missile sites, and "choked off freshwater in the Mekong River," Flynn warned. Dams built by China in upstream locations within its territory have been described by researchers and investigators as by turn depriving livelihood and constituting a strategic chokehold to downstream nations and communities in southeast Asia.
Lines of communication "being cut through Myanmar and Pakistan to get access to the Ottoman Sea" was another worrisome development, Flynn noted, adding that the 1.2 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh also posed a potential challenge. "And that's just South Asia, alone."
While Southeast Asia is trending in a positive direction, according to Flynn, in terms of relations with the United States, Oceania, he said, currently is "under duress." There, China has made great inroads by compromising local elites, Flynn said.
"Their currency is corruption." Ultimately, China seeks to gain "access to terrain," he said.
Flynn identified some of the features on or about the terrain that China seeks access: IT backbone, electrical grid, warehouses, piers, airfields and ports.
Flynn named Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, as places where Chinese influence poses a particular challenge.
Looking around the region, he pointed out other areas where tension has risen. "Of course, the activity in the South and East China Sea, and around Taiwan," he said.
"I can't go into great detail here on what's happening on the ground, but I can tell you that the PLA Army and the PLA Rocket Force and the Strategic Support Force are in dangerous positions," Flynn alerted the audience in Washington.
He also hinted at a unique role the Army could play to counter China's strategy in the Taiwan Strait.
"The A2AD arsenal that the Chinese have designed is primarily designed to defeat air and maritime capabilities," he noted. "Secondarily, it's designed to degrade, disrupt and deny space and cyber," he continued.
China is said to employ an A2AD [anti-access and area-denial] strategy concerning Taiwan aimed at keeping the United States and other friendly forces out of that theater during a potential invasion.
The A2AD strategy, Flynn pointed out, "is not designed to find, fix and finish mobile, networked, dispersed, reloadable ground forces that are lethal and nonlethal, that are operating amongst their allies and partners in the region."
This, he said, "is an important point."
Another point he emphasized is the United States would much prefer not to engage in a military conflict with China.
"Our goal out there is no war. But we have to be in a position and be forward with combat-credible forces to deter that from happening," Flynn said. If deterrence "happens to fail, then we're at least in a position to take advantage [together] with the joint force, to achieve the national objectives set up by the National Command Authority and the president."
Wormuth noted that the U.S. is also paying attention to scenarios of potential conflict with China beyond the Taiwan Strait. Spikes in border clashes between China and India, Beijing's belligerent behavior in the South China Sea or around the Senkaku Islands, a contentious point between China and Japan, are among those scenarios, she noted.