Wednesday, November 9, 2011

PACOM And AFRICOM Came To San Francisco In Fall 2011

This town is a magnet for lectures from big shots.  In the past two months I've attended lectures from Admiral Robert. F Willard, Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, and General Carter Ham, Commander of U.S. Africa Command.  Admiral Willard spoke in September on the security opportunities and challenges facing the Asia-Pacific region, and Gen. Ham gave a rundown in November of AFRICOM's activities.  What follows is my comparison of the two commands' approaches to regional security.
The geographic regions covered by each command are simply ginormous, with PACOM covering 36 nations and AFRICOM covering 54 nations (including the world's newest nation, South Sudan).  Both commands implement security cooperation programs with America's regional partners, and by comparing my notes it's obvious which country is the cause for America's concern: China.  Managing the U.S.'s relationship with China is the PACOM commander's biggest stated challenge; countering China's economic influence in Africa is an emerging challenge for AFRICOM.  It's interesting to note that both commanders emphasized China as a competitor and potential partner, not an adversary.  It is probably at least a decade too early to consider China an adversary and even then the Middle Kingdom will have a way to go to prove itself a worthy adversary.  Gen. Ham mentioned that the African countries he's visited use their Chinese-made military hardware in static displays because it no longer operates.

PACOM's vast expanses of ocean now include space and cyber domains as global centers of gravity the U.S. must protect.  This expands the U.S. Navy's role as guarantor of freedom of navigation in the Western Pacific since WWII.  Gen. Ham did not mention space or cyber domains in his talk.  African nations may be unable to afford space programs and anti-satellite weapons, but IMHO we should not underestimate their ability for cyber-enabled asymmetric warfare.  It does not take much capital for an African hacker to disrupt a network with DOS attacks. 

Adm. Willard mentioned China's rising blue water navy.  It is an open secret that China sees aircraft carriers (an 80-year old weapon system) as a source of national pride.  What is not widely reported is that China still views its navy as an adjunct of the People's Liberation Army and not a peer member of a joint team.  That nuance is key to understanding how Chinese doctrine must evolve if their navy is to become a power projection arm that can threaten neighbors.  A navy that can show the flag in the Indian Ocean and conduct counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden is a minimally-capable blue-water force.  Evolution into amphibious operations and joint integration will be keys to determining whether Taiwan's independence is at risk.  One more note on Taiwan: It is worth wondering whether the U.S.'s declining arms sales to Taiwan are a sign that China's creditor position as a holder of U.S. sovereign debt gives it leverage over U.S. posture in the Pacific.  Just sayin'. 

Speaking of counter-piracy, AFRICOM does that too.  It also has a role to play in Libya.  Gen. Ham alluded to AFRICOM's initial role in helping plan the allied operation in Libya but then noted NATO's lead; now Libya is back in AFRICOM's hands for post-conflict stabilization.  The need for the transition of C2 in Libya should be made clear.  AFRICOM is configured and staffed primarily for security cooperation, not warfighting.  It is not clear whether AFRICOM's combined air operations center was mature enough to manage an air campaign over a denied theater (i.e., generating a daily air tasking order, tracking BDA, etc.).  The fact sheet for 17th Air Force, AFRICOM's air component, doesn't mention any strike assets.  Perhaps someone in AFRICOM could set the record straight on which command owned which phase of Operation Odyssey Dawn / Operation Unified Protector.  Perhaps someone in NATO could set the record straight on whether NATO's air operations center could truly handle the daily sortie generation rate it was designed to manage. 

Adm. Willard gave some support to my pet theory that there is potential for a new Cold War between China and India.  China isn't just beefing up its armed forces for national pride or to contest the U.S. in the South China Sea.  India is very concerned about the potential Chinese threat to its Arunachal Pradesh region bordering Tibet.  China has never abandoned its claims to what it calls South Tibet. China's leaders know that any slowdown in its economic growth will test the country's social cohesion.  It is easy to envision scenarios under which resurgent Chinese nationalism can tempt Beijing into aggressive adventures.  Adm. Willard mentioned, at various points, India's frustration with U.S. arms sales to Pakistan, India's military-to-military contacts with the U.S., and our two countries' commercial alignments.  New Delhi should not worry so much.  The U.S. flirtation with Pakistan has an expiration date.  A further U.S. alignment with India as a balance-of-power counterweight to China would be a natural evolution. 

Gen. Ham and Adm. Willard both face rogue threats in their regions.  North Korea's erratic leadership has been a thorn in the Pacific's side for sixty years.  Korean culture emphasizes ancestor worship and honoring a family patriarch's legacy, so of course the next generation of the ruling Kim dynasty will continue panhandling via the Six-Party Talks to obtain some donation scheme that is even more generous than the Agreed Framework.  The DPRK raises blackmail and hyperbole to an art form.  The immature stateless threats of Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have yet to develop that level of skill in Africa.  That's the thing with non-state actors.  They don't have the cash or connections for nuclear weapons so they have to think outside the box.  Gen. Ham noted that our African partners like getting U.S. advice in logistics, intelligence, communications, and air/ground integration techniques that help fight these threats.  They will need that help if they are to assure world markets that their natural resources are secure and available for development. 

Africa has enormous potential in oil, agriculture, and minerals, as Gen. Ham said.  I predict that China and the U.S. will largely frame their "cooperative" relationship as a question of who gets first access to the untapped wealth of Africa.  Here's the bottom line.  China needs Africa's resources to support its drive for dominance in Asia.  The U.S., India, and other nations know this but aren't ready to publicly counter China's drive as stated policy.  PACOM and AFRICOM have every reason to watch China's moves and help smaller nations in their regions become stronger.  The outline of a new era in global power is emerging.  That's why I attend these lectures.  You are now free to go read something else until I have more great things to say.