Uncle Sam is literally back. Through our Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca), the United States has access to a number of our military bases.
Unlike before, when the former US bases on Philippine soil were exclusively America’s, now America has the run of some of our military facilities in Cagayan, Isabela and Palawan. Also, while before we were just a forward base for US military operations during the Cold War, now we could actually be involved in a real shooting war should China take Taiwan by force, or if tensions in our West Philippine Sea boil over.
The announcements of the Edca sites brought a funny incident to mind: When my son was in lower school, a science teacher asked his class: “What is the strongest force on earth?” One of the kids answered, in all seriousness: “The US Army.”
The expected science answer was “gravity,” but the boy certainly had a point. The US military has no equal, a fact acknowledged by even its bitterest of foes. It does not win all the time, it can be fought to a stalemate or forced to leave a conflict area it cannot fully control, but for sheer destructive power, given it decides to exercise that option bereft of any consideration except military victory, it is certainly the strongest military force on earth. It has a huge nuclear arms stockpile, the biggest budget, and the biggest number of aircraft and of naval flotillas built around state-of-the-art aircraft carriers.
What accounts for the conundrum of unequaled power but incomplete domination? Center of gravity.
In military parlance, a popular interpretation of center of gravity is anything that holds a fighting force together, be it a geographical location or an ideology or a combination of these and other factors that enable it to function or carry out its mission. (Attributed to 19th-century Prussian military thinker Karl von Clausewitz, the concept has seen varying interpretations, depending on the translator and the military involved.) As long as the center of gravity holds, a military force can continue fighting. Thus, in the conventional sense, it would be necessary for a contending force to invade its foe’s territory or center of gravity to achieve victory.
Short of an invasion, a country can project power to intimidate and control, even as it keeps its physical center of gravity relatively unthreatened, except by terrorism or long-term subversion.
Power projection is the better option to full-scale invasion because centers of gravity are hard to vanquish and control. Wars of attrition are hard to wage especially if the big powers are involved on both sides. Many big powers in the modern era have been caught in the quagmire of unwinnable wars, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Ukraine.
What is the relevance of all these to us and our dispute with China over the West Philippine Sea? China has to think really hard about invading our landmass as it can’t even seem to be willing to absorb the cost of taking on heavily-armed Taiwan. A full-scale invasion of recalcitrant neighbors would be bad for business, risking loss of an empire that China seeks to build through its blend of money and military muscle.
In this inherent difficulty of capturing our center of gravity lies our advantage. We can thus also play the game of power projection, for which there is no shortage of weapons, as modern technology has made these readily available. If China can deploy drones, so can we. If small countries like North Korea and Israel can hold their enemies at bay with their missiles, so should we be able to.
During his presidency, Rodrigo Duterte repeatedly said he did not want our soldiers getting massacred as his reason for not confronting China over its bullying. But we will be massacred only if we employ the wrong tactics and the wrong weapons.
Projection and automation whether in the symmetric or the asymmetric sense are the hallmarks of 21st-century warfare, and we should head in that direction. Even the simplest remote-controlled weapons have devastating effects, as shown in how improvised explosive devices literally blew the feet off the US military in Iraq. Mobility, or the ability to “shoot and scoot” as amply demonstrated now in Ukrainian battlefields, also enables a small country to hold off a vastly bigger country and its bigger military.
So, then, what is the strongest force on earth? The US Army? Gravity? It is our fighting heart. It should not be vitiated by a conciliatory attitude in order to defuse the situation for reasons of investment and trade. The only time a conflict situation can be defused is when the other side gives up. An attitude of helplessness is the last thing we should assume. Otherwise, it will just be a matter of time before we freefall into being an actual province of China or a wasteland of war between the superpowers. We should not give up on our center of gravity just because we are small and have fewer resources.
Having Edca makes tactical sense for now, but the only strategy that will save us is to be a strong power unto ourselves, proud and free of foreign domination.