“The history of failure in war can almost always be summed up in two words: ‘Too late.’ Too late in comprehending the deadly purpose of a potential enemy; too late in realizing the mortal danger; too late in preparedness; too late in uniting all possible forces for resistance.”

General Douglas MacArthur’s words, spoken in 1940, quickly became the reality for the United States on December 7, 1941. While the United States did have combat forces forward before the onset of World War II, these forces were wholly unprepared for the combat activities that would follow and quickly ceded ground to the rapidly advancing Japanese forces in the Philippines. The subsequent movement of troops across the Pacific battlefield after December 7 was a significant undertaking for US forces. Unfortunately, that combat power projection from the continental United States into the first island chain came at a tremendous cost for the nation—costs that were borne before they even got into the fight. More than eight decades on, crossing those large distances remains one of the critical problem sets associated with the Pacific region and one we must focus on before it is “too late.”

Decisions in the Pacific: Distance and Inevitability

The distances of the Pacific are apparent, but their implications are often not truly considered until forward in the environment. The first problem is the distance one must overcome to get to the fight. The land victory in Operation Desert Storm relied on the United States’ ability to rapidly generate and project a dominant combat force into an uncontested environment. The generation of F-15 and F-16 sorties, the massing of artillery divisions, and the movement of tank columns were possible because no one was trying to stop these capabilities as they moved from locations across the globe onto the battlefield. China’s antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities—a robust network of all-domain intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance paired with offensive and defensive strike capabilities—are designed specifically to prevent the United States from projecting power into the theater.

Once on the battlefield, the clear asymmetric advantage of land forces (soldiers, Marines, and special operations forces) in the Pacific is their ability to disperse and survive in mobile formations away from existing air and naval bases. The limited terrain in the Pacific could mean that a platoon leader is operating hundreds of kilometers away from her company commander, separated by vast bodies of water, working alongside joint and multinational formations outside her standard task organization, and in contact with a potential adversary. For veterans of previous wars, a “troops in contact” situation had a distinct definition—US and enemy forces kinetically engaged with the enemy—with a resulting need for action. In today’s multidomain environment, US land forces operate under constant surveillance and in constant contact with potential adversaries. Distance, in all cases, will drive the decision on both when and if leaders will respond to an adversary’s action.

While many will rightfully dispute the inevitability of conflict in the region, China has clearly messaged competition activities that, if undeterred, present global implications. Over the past decade, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has undergone the most extensive modernization program in its history. While the Chinese Communist Party’s stated goal for this effort has been to transform the PLA into a “world-class” force on par with the US military by 2049, ongoing efforts have indicated an acceleration in this timeline. More recently, this has included regular deployment of forces and deterrence efforts across all domains. These efforts, coupled with what China describes as the “historical inevitability” of the reunification of Taiwan to the mainland, indicate much more than an isolated or even regionally contained threat. If uncontested, this threat will quickly expand to neighboring regions and challenge access to the global commons.

Countering these obstacles and preparing for the future fight must be done with a clear sense of purpose and urgency. China’s modernization efforts are not limited to materiel solutions but focus across all categories on the DOTMLPF-P spectrum (doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities, and policy). Keeping pace with this threat and remaining relevant to the joint fight requires transformational change for the Army. Driving this transformation requires changes in how land forces position, train, and integrate for the future fight.

The Environment: Live in It, Train in It

Given the distances and resources associated with even getting into the Pacific, there’s a low likelihood that assets not already forward when a crisis emerges will deploy fast enough to play a meaningful role. This is especially true for Army formations, which often rely on joint assets for force projection. However, simultaneously, China’s A2/AD system is primarily built to identify and destroy large, fast-moving ships and aircraft, not to counter mobile, survivable land formations. This means that land-based capabilities placed persistently near the adversary and capable of surviving an initial adversary onslaught can assist in bringing air and maritime power back into the fight. For the Army to achieve this, a robust exercise, rotation, and stationing strategy is required to place critical formations forward in theater, ahead of the time of need. In essence, the Army must cheat the TPFDD (time-phased force deployment data) to be relevant for this fight.

In support of this concept, the Army contributes to the joint force with new “combat credible” formations and capabilities, designed to enhance or close joint kill webs, integrated into upcoming Pacific exercises and operations. In recent years, the Army’s top modernization priorities have focused on those capabilities that can appropriately deter, disrupt, and (if necessary) respond to pacing-threat aggression. Ranging from long-range fires with maritime-strike capabilityhigh-altitude platforms that can operate deeper and more persistently on the battlefield, and AI-enabled intelligence fusion nodes that link deep sensing to long-range fires and effects across all domains, we have recognized it’s vital not only to train where we may fight but to experiment there, too.

When forces are forward, they also benefit from the perfect training environment for everything from identifying potential firing points and prepositioning classes of supply to conducting route reconnaissance and exercising various joint and multinational activities. Exercising forward helps ensure the entire force is well rehearsed at echelon in the positions they will fight. Beyond that, it also forces us to validate planning assumptions, which for the Army, as a landpower service, are often based on European scenarios and invalid in the Pacific fight. Theater army soldiers do this today through Operation Pathways and Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center (JPMRC) efforts. Operation Pathways allows the Army to campaign in the first island chain while establishing the interior lines necessary for the theater army to contribute to the joint fight. JPMRC further enhances Pathways exercises with the most realistic training environment for units—replicating the complexity inherent in military operations in the Pacific and allowing training alongside the partners with which the units will fight—an environment that cannot be fully replicated in any existing Army combat training center.

Collectively, these events serve as rehearsals in an optimal learning environment. Validating and refining processes in the contact layer enables the Army to transform while simultaneously forming partnerships and securing positions of advantage for the future fight. Just as China’s modernization efforts are not limited to materiel solutions, these formations and capabilities operating in the contact layer help drive requirements all across the DOTMLPF-P spectrum.

Integrate to Fight

While land forces in the Pacific must leverage their ability to disperse across significant distances to survive, these capabilities must, too, integrate to fight. In the future fight, there are no separate intelligence, command-and-control, and fires networks. There is only the network, the current number one priority for transformation in the Army, that connects units and modernization efforts from the tactical edge to the enterprise level.

Building the network in the Pacific is no easy feat—the vast distances, environments that range from tropical to arctic, and remote nodes create significant difficulties for communication. Furthermore, for Pacific exercises, the previous Army paradigm was for units to spend months planning, preparing, and establishing command-and-control capabilities. This timeline is simply not feasible in a crisis. Additionally, any contributions these events might have made toward building the network were often lost at the conclusion of the exercises. More recently, efforts by US Army Pacific to build network capability have expanded to cover multiple exercises incorporating a more significant number of partners. These efforts have revealed new methods for using unclassified tools to complete tasks typically requiring access to classified data with the ability to enhance shared understanding and awareness of PLA insidious activities across domains. Operating on a single, always-on network creates a persistent training environment through which the Army can train, experiment, and rehearse on the same network on which they will fight and allows us to incrementally tackle the difficult network problem set that the Pacific presents.

Preventing Future Shrines

Those who celebrate MacArthur’s historic landing in Leyte Gulf often forget that this came after nearly three years of Japanese occupation of the Philippines and a bloody fight to regain territory once held. Within hours of the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor came a series of aerial attacks on Philippine air bases, followed by ground troop landings on northern Luzon. The subsequent quick defeat of US forces and ceding of territory culminated in the forcible transfer of nearly eighty thousand Filipino and American soldiers over roughly sixty-five miles. Today, the Capas National Shrine marks the endpoint of the Bataan Death March and serves as a “reminder of America’s unpreparedness before the outbreak of World War II.” The Pacific remains a priority for US national defense. To avoid retelling the story of loss and sacrifice, we must focus on what makes the Pacific fight so challenging and work deliberately, ahead of any future conflict in the region, to overcome those challenges and keep pace with the most prescient threat to a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Lieutenant Colonel Ben Blane is a field artillery officer and commands the Army’s first long-range fires battalion as part of the 1st Multi-Domain Task Force at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. He holds an undergraduate degree from the United States Military Academy and graduate degrees from Columbia University and John Jay College. He has multiple deployments and experience throughout the Indo-Pacific region.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Command Sgt. Maj. LeBaron Gordon, US Army