November 14, 2016

CNAS Releases New Report, “Counterbalance: Red Teaming the Rebalance in the Asia-Pacific”

Washington, November 14 – The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Asia-Pacific Security Program has released a new report providing prescriptions to reinforce the Department of Defense’s Asia-Pacific strategy, particularly its force posture, security assistance initiatives, operational concepts, and its commitment to Third Offset military modernization efforts. The report takes a particular focus at what DOD should do during the next Administration.

The reports authors are:

·      Dr. Mira Rapp-Hooper, Senior Fellow in the CNAS Asia-Pacific Security Program

·      Dr. Patrick M. Cronin, Senior Director of the CNAS Asia-Pacific Security Program

·      Harry Kresja, Research Associate with the CNAS Asia-Pacific Security Program

·      Hannah Suh, Program Coordinator with the CNAS Asia-Pacific Security Program

The full report can be found here.

Please find the Executive Summary of the report below:

Since the Pivot to Asia was announced on November 17, 2011, President Barack Obama has sought to refocus American diplomatic, economic, and military attention to the Asia-Pacific region. Now known as the Rebalance to Asia, the effort remains designed to refocus American policymaking on the world’s fastest growing and most populous region, following long wars in the Middle East and the 2008 financial crisis. The fundamental premise of the Rebalance is that the history of the twenty-first century will be written in Asia. How the United States protects its allies and interests, contributes to institution building and security provision, and helps to manage a rising China will determine whether it can maintain a twenty-first century regional leadership role. This strategic turn has a central, but by no means exclusive, role for the Department of Defense. This study seeks to assess some of the Pentagon’s leading Rebalance initiatives to date, with an eye to helping a new administration to strengthen these efforts.

In its Asia-Pacific Maritime Strategy, the Department of Defense (DOD) has described three fundamental U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region: securing the freedom of the seas, deterring conflict and coercion, and promoting adherence to international laws and standards. The Pentagon’s initiatives are directed toward securing continued access to the seas and skies of the Western Pacific despite growing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) challenges from China. The Department has begun to implement four distinct initiatives to that effect, which this report addresses in turn.

First, the Department of Defense has sought to reinforce its military force posture. Free movement throughout the Asia-Pacific maritime theatre, supported by forward-deployed troops and platforms, has underwritten regional security there for decades, but is due for a post–Cold War update to confront modern challenges. Next, the United States is pursuing new security assistance initiatives aimed at building partner capacity in the region. This line of effort seeks to reshape (and reform) traditional Cold War or counterterrorism-inspired relationships to confront contemporary challenges. Third, the United States is pursuing a Third Offset military modernization effort. Following in the tradition of the two prior offset strategies – efforts to balance Soviet quantitative military advantages with superior qualitative ones – the Third Offset strategy seeks to reassert American technological dominance for a new era. Finally, the Pentagon is developing new operational concepts by which it can fight and prevail in conflict using the capabilities and personnel to which it has access today.

This study aims to assess and provide prescriptions that may strengthen these initiatives. It scrutinizes the Pentagon’s assumptions about the Rebalance, offers alternative analyses, and attempts to anticipate how China might respond to U.S. efforts. Our study employed a Red Team method: a structured process of discussion and analysis designed to challenge traditional assumptions among policymakers and experts and to identify and overcome preexisting cognitive biases. Over the course of five workshops in 2016, teams of leading regional and functional experts examined the Pentagon’s four lines of effort, as well as how the four would interact in a scenario exercise based in the year 2020. These sessions, combined with the authors’ extensive research and interviews with policymakers leading the Pentagon’s Rebalance efforts, informed this report’s analyses and recommendations.

Force Posture

The fundamental assumption animating the force posture elements of the Rebalance is that a greater U.S. presence will reduce or blunt the impact of Chinese assertiveness. The United States has sought to achieve this through the conclusion of new rotational access agreements, which accommodate temporary U.S. deployments abroad, tailored as needed for specific places and circumstances. This force posture assumption may be true, but should be scrutinized in light of the tradeoffs inherent in an enhanced U.S. force posture in the Asia-Pacific. A more visible presence is not the same as a more effective posture. Large forward operating bases and local platform rotations may appear reassuring, but could also be less effective in a high-intensity conflict than distributed platforms based over-the-horizon. However a U.S. force posture upgrade is pursued, Chinese planners may interpret this line of effort as a validation of their own efforts: namely, that the United States sees its position in the region as slipping in the face of Chinese military modernization and anti-access investments. A new administration should commence a global force posture review that acknowledges the need to retain substantial forward forces in Asia, and should assess whether existing rotational agreements meet DOD needs; it should conduct a new annual exercise that demonstrates the capability and the capacity at its disposal from new access arrangements; and it should consider cluster basing, by which multiple, proximate, outposts serve similar functions, for the purposes of resilience.

Security Assistance

In contrast to the assumptions underpinning force posture upgrades, which are clear, if untested, those shaping U.S. security assistance programs and strategy are numerous and indistinct. Security assistance programs vary significantly across agencies and countries: they are sometimes aimed at improving a partner’s defensive capabilities, sometimes at improving U.S. regional access by way of that country, and at times perhaps merely a means of managing the relationship. U.S. policymakers have struggled to align security assistance efforts under unified strategic objectives, although the new Pentagon-based Maritime Security Initiative (MSI), a partner capacity building program for Southeast Asia, could begin to change that. However, China could reap outsized benefits if it undertook its own competing effort to provide hardware assistance, such as by provisioning basic radio communications equipment. Instead, it will likely benefit more from shaping the political cost calculations of countries that receive U.S. assistance. China has shown a willingness to wield economic pressure as a weapon, and may seek to inflict harm upon or woo away perceived or potential U.S. partners. To counter this, the Pentagon should institute an annual assessment that explicitly coordinates security assistance programs with strategic goals; it should work with MSI countries to develop their own plans and proposals for maritime domain awareness (MDA); it should enlist regional armies in maritime domain awareness development efforts; it should encourage near-term cooperative projects such as coast guard academies; it should coordinate the MSI with International Military Education and Training (IMET) and Foreign Military Financing (FMF) programs; and it should adopt lessons from past successful programs like the Partnership for Peace.

Third Offset

Faced with the prospects of the proliferation of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) and the return of near-peer military competition, the Pentagon’s nascent Third Offset strategy acknowledges that the American way of war faces fundamental challenges. Our Red Team analysis found that the Third Offset held promise, but requires far more definition to confront the obstacles posed by China’s military modernization. The Third Offset differs from the prior two strategies in several fundamental ways. First, China is an uncommon challenge as the “pacing threat,” with its ability to field large quantities of “good enough” capabilities. It will be no easy feat for Washington to innovate its way out of competition. Both Beijing and Washington, however, recognize that China is more likely to pursue targeted efforts at balancing against specific individual platforms, rather than to attempt a broader confrontation with U.S. technological superiority. U.S. defense planners should define the Third Offset carefully to send calibrated signals of intent to China and to partners; they should include efforts beyond traditional innovation, to harness existing technologies and to slow the pace of fast-followers; they should publicly emphasize those capabilities that will be funded and produced in short order; they should explain to allies their role in this initiative; and they should seek to put China at a disadvantage by encouraging Beijing to spend where it is relatively weak and improvements would be costly.

Operational Concepts

By investing in new operational concepts such as Air-Sea Battle (ASB), the Pentagon has signaled its belief that legacy operational concepts may no longer be adequate in the event of a war with China. Recent operational concepts for the Pacific have centered around legacy platforms and capabilities which may allow the Department of Defense to wield them in new and inventive ways. Chinese strategists have seized upon publicly available evidence about new U.S. concepts and used this to justify their own ongoing modernization efforts. When new guidance is made public about the concept known as Joint Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons, it should acknowledge but not concede that access is contested; it should attempt cost imposition by encouraging China to spend on its areas of weakness; it should increase stability by emphasizing resilience; and it should produce multiple concepts of operations, including concepts for lower-intensity conflicts that originate in maritime and territorial disputes.

Strengthening Strategy in the Asia-Pacific Region

The four defense Rebalance initiatives this report examines hold a great deal of promise, but the Pentagon would be well advised to examine the assumptions underpinning them, as well as how China is likely to respond when planning its future. These lines of effort do not exist in a vacuum: they each intersect with one another and could be mutually reinforcing, or instead might work at cross-purposes. China is likely to respond to these initiatives in a calculated manner. While it is difficult to point to instances in which specific U.S. programs have inspired direct Chinese countervailing efforts, it is also clear that most U.S. defense initiatives feed China’s larger narrative that it is threatened by containment or encirclement. U.S. initiatives seem to make the most significant impression on Chinese planners when they seek to discern U.S. intentions from capabilities. While the United States thinks of its regional defense posture largely in traditional military terms, China’s responses to each of these lines of effort may rely on political counteractions, such as coalition split - ting or the use of economic coercion. China’s most likely responses make apparent the need for careful, top-down Rebalance coordination as a new administration takes office in 2017.

A new National Security Council (NSC) staff should issue classified strategic and agency-specific guidance early in 2017 that charts the course for the next phase of the Rebalance. It should task the Pentagon, State Department, Treasury Department, and others agencies with preparing an annual Rebalance report. The Pentagon should evaluate the utility of adopting a concrete defensive objective – namely, the defense of the First Island Chain – and of focusing its lines of effort toward this end, even if only in private. A new administration will also want to craft a counter-coercion concept to accompany the Pentagon’s new operational concepts; prioritize those Third Offset capabilities that may have near-term applications; and think through some fundamental strategic questions in advance of crisis or conflict: what exactly does the United States seek to deter and defend in the waterways of Asia, and to what lengths will it go to do so?

The Pentagon has made substantial progress in implementing four of its most prominent regional defense initiatives. But these initiatives are based on premises and assumptions that may not always hold true, and China has ample tools to respond, some of which exist outside of the defense domain. China has consistently assumed the worst about U.S. defense initiatives in East Asia, and is likely to continue to view these initiatives through a containment or encirclement lens, however they take shape. China’s prospective responses suggest that the Department can best strengthen the Rebalance if it begins from the top down, with careful and concerted coordination across offices and agencies. The success or failure of U.S. efforts will be determined in large part by how nimbly they respond to China’s inevitable countervailing actions.

The report’s authors are available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at or 202-457-9409.


  • Neal Urwitz

    Former Director of External Relations

    Neal Urwitz is the former Director of External Relations at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). In that capacity, Mr. Urwitz was responsible for the organization’s ...