This story was first published Aug. 21 at 5:24 p.m. and has been updated.
As threats mount in the Pacific, the four-star head of the U.S. Pacific Fleet is directing his fleet to be ready to fight and to "reinforce the international order" by working with allies and partners in the region.
With China saber-rattling in the East and South China seas, and a growing emerging threat from Islamic extremist groups in the region, Adm. Scott Swift called for the Pacific Fleet to support "an Indo-Asia-Pacific maritime domain where the established and enduring international framework of norms, standards, rules, and laws is preserved."
In assertive language, the document calls on sailors to be ready to fight and to posture the fleet to present a credible deterrent to challengers. Sailors should "Posture forward physically and mentally to deter and, if required, defeat potential foes," the document reads.
The serious tone of the guidance reflects the growing threat of great power conflict between the U.S. and China, said Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer and former senior aid to Chief of Naval Operations Jon Greenert.
"Fighting is a much more important element in this guidance than in other documents like this that we've seen in recent years," said Clark, now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "He's saying that being ready to fight is an important element in our ability to deter aggression."
Swift's six-point plan also calls on Navy personnel stationed in PACFLT to behave in accordance with core values. Sailors and civilians should display "behavior that reflects our values of honor, courage, and commitment" and reject "behaviors that place individuals at risk or treat them with anything less than dignity and respect."
Clark said the lead point is a clear allusion to a handful of high-profile incidents in the region that has strained U.S. relations, particularly with Japan. In March a sailor was accused of raping a Japanese woman and in May a former Marine and military civilian based in Okinawa was implicated in the disappearance and death of a woman there.
"No amount of new capability or weapons systems will make up for a workforce with a character problem," Clark said. "Eventually that will eat you alive."
Under the heading "Commander's Intent," Swift lists six points:
- Preserve a resilient workforce: His call for improved behavior.
- Be ready to fight: Training and equipping the fleet for battle.
- Reinforce the international order: Strengthening U.S. partnerships in the region to uphold international law.
- Lead credibly: Clearly communicate intentions and follow through with actions.
- Embrace opportunity: Swift is calling on sailors to boost the Navy’s capabilities "through new tactics and operational concepts — leveraging Sailor intellect always and technology where sensible."
- Project power: Be present and deter potential enemies.
Much of the language in Swift’s one-page "Commander’s Guidance to the Fleet" rings familiar for those following the protracted confrontation between China, its neighbors in the region and the U.S. over disputed claims in the South China Sea.
The standoff has become a focus of military leaders in recent years as China has become more assertive with its claims, even going so far as to build man-made islands with runways and ports on disputed features in an attempt to bolster their claims. In July, an international tribunal rejected China’s claim to most of the South China Sea and its right to claim rights based on their island constructions.
In the wake of the tribunal’s decision, which China rejected, Beijing has pushed ahead with putting military systems and infrastructure on their island. Concern is also mounting that China might move on Scarborough Shoal, an atoll just 140 miles from the Philippines’ capital of Manila, and put U.S. forces there at risk in a crisis.
Military and civilian leaders have cast the U.S. role in the region as maintaining the international order that has ensured the growth and prosperity of the region since the end of World War II.
During a recent trip to China, CNO Adm. John Richardson said the Navy was committed to presence in the region.
"The U.S. Navy will continue to conduct routine and lawful operations around the world, including in the South China Sea, in order to protect the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of sea and airspace guaranteed to all," he said, according to a Navy press release. "This will not change."
Military leaders and strategists are also increasingly alarmed by waves of violence and signs that countries with large Muslim populations like the Philippines and Bangladesh could be ISIS’s next global stronghold.
In a July 27 speech to the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, U.S. Pacific Command head Adm. Harry Harris said the region would need to work together to stop ISIS from metastasizing into what the U.S. military calls the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
"I often talk about the U.S. strategic rebalance to this region," Harris said. "Regrettably, I believe that ISIL is also trying to rebalance to the Indo-Asia-Pacific. To halt the Islamic State’s cancerous spread in Asia, we can’t work alone. We must work together.
"Thankfully, Japan and many other like-minded nations have joined the counter-ISIL coalition. Together, we can — and will — eradicate this disease."
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.