icon “Deepening Interoperability” by Capt Eli J. Morales (MCG, Dec19)

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    I want to commend Capt Eli J. Morales for the innovative ideas he offers in his recent article entitled, “Deepening Interoperability,” (MCG, Dec19); he clearly deserved the prestigious First Place award in the Chase Prize Essay Contest for his submission. Capt Morales’ idea to expand upon the current expeditionary strike group (ESG) concept by incorporating the assets of our allies and partners is truly a novel approach to expanding our overall forward presence and posture. Moreover, he hits upon a fundamental aspect that is espoused in our National Defense Strategy, the recent DOD Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, and several other documents regarding our commitment to working with and strengthening our allies and partners. Simply put, our greatest strength in the Indo-Pacific region is the linkages that we have with our constellation of like-minded friends, those nations who are committed to the maintenance of a free and open Indo-Pacific region that has been the cornerstone of sustained peace and prosperity throughout this region for over 70 years. There is no doubt that the United States has been the key contributor to that sustained peace and prosperity and that we will remain instrumental in ensuring that those conditions persist well into the future Capt Morales’ article recognizes that our resource capabilities can only go so far though, and that perhaps we can garner more from our regional allies and partners. After all, they have benefitted and continue to benefit greatly from the security arrangement that underwrites the current geo-strategic framework, so there is a case to be made that they should be more involved in sustaining the regional security network.

    The idea of a combined allied ESG, or combined allied ESG (CAESG) as Capt Morales refers to it, is indeed worthy of consideration. Operating ESGs with both U.S. assets as well as those assets of select allies and partners sounds like a superb idea; however, when put up against today’s political realities, unfortunately, I argue that it is currently infeasible. I offer this point reluctantly because while the concept itself offers great promise, the realities of the present inevitably will prevent this concept from attaining full fruition.

    First, this initiative assumes a degree of relative balance between U.S. assets and those of our partners in the region, an assumption that frankly is erroneous. It seems that, whether intentionally or not, Capt Morales conflates capacity with capability, and that is a mistake; the assets of our partners do not provide suitable substitutes for our own. Moreover, there are challenges associated with simply conducting basic standard command and control actions with many of the partners that the article cites; many do not have the assets to enable required secure communications with our assets.

    These limitations can be overcome, though, if the United States is willing to spend the necessary resources to upgrade the capabilities of our partners to match our own. However, the most significant flaw in Capt Morales’ concept is that in agreeing to such a concept, the countries of the Indo-Pacific would effectively be agreeing to making a choice between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—a choice which none are actually willing to make, at least not now and certainly not publicly. By aligning their assets with ours in a formal security arrangement such as a CAESG, those participating nations would be telling the PRC that they have chosen to embrace the United States as their principal partner since any CAESG would certainly be a U.S.-led entity. As Capt Morales rightly points out, ASEAN is not a security arrangement among the regional nations, and that outcome was by design. The countries that make up ASEAN do not want to put themselves or each other in a position where they have to decide between aligning with the United States for their security needs at the expense of their economic relationships with the PRC.

    While the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, for example, all appreciate the security umbrella provided by the United States, their economic ties to the PRC are likewise quite extensive. The PRC is either the number one or number two destination for each of those countries’ exports, and their respective economies are too dependent upon the PRC to risk the ire of the Chinese Communist Party  Outside of ASEAN, Australia, Japan, and the Republic of Korea, who are among our most committed allies in the region, also possess deep economic ties to the PRC that preclude them from entering into a CAESG-type arrangement that would effectively subordinate their forces to a U.S.-led security arrangement. Additionally, India’s fierce commitment to their policy of non-alignment, even with their relatively recent designation as a major defense partner of the United States, would likely prevent them from entering into any formal security arrangement with any nation. None of these countries will want to risk incurring the fiscal wrath of a PRC that knows it can use its 1.3 billion consumer base as leverage.

    Ultimately, although the tactical merits of Capt Morales’ initiative make a great deal of sense and offer an option that optimizes the operationally sound employment of limited resources, at the moment, those merits are likely to be overcome by the strategic exigencies of the necessary participating countries that stand to lose a great deal economically by publicly signing on to such a plan. Perhaps sometime in the future, once the PRC economic juggernaut subsides and our regional allies and partners are no longer as economically reliant upon access to that nation, Capt Morales’ initiative can be implemented. For now, though, political and strategic realities will keep this idea from being feasible in the near future. Regardless, Capt Morales offers a terrific suggestion for strong future consideration as this dynamic region continues to evolve.

    MajGen Steve Sklenka,

    J5 Director, Strategic Planning and Policy

    U.S. Indo-Pacific Command 

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