15 Big Ideas to Operationalize America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy


The Trump administration has offered a strong vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific, but without a bold set of policy and budget initiatives to make it real, it risks becoming yet another empty concept. The first year of the administration saw a reaffirmation of Bush and Obama-era policies that the Indo-Pacific region should continue to become a central priority for U.S. national security planning. This pattern began early in 2017, with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ trip to the region, and continued into the summer and fall with then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s CSIS speech, the president’s own trip to the region, and the release of the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy. But despite the administration closing out the year by talking routinely about an Indo-Pacific strategy, beyond major changes to trade policy and the reemergence of the “quad,” there have been few details to explain just how that new strategy will be operationalized.

When President Barack Obama announced his intention to “rebalance” U.S. time, energy, and resources Asia in 2012, the stranglehold of sequestration and a series of other factors prevented real material resources from ever following the lofty rhetoric. The result was a strategy that was long on promises and hollow on resourcing, leaving many in the region to question the intent and commitment of the U.S. government. With new leadership incoming at the National Security Council and State Department, a budget deal in place, and another budget planning cycle just around the corner, the time is ripe for an interagency planning process to consider a range of ideas for jump-starting the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

What follows are a series of ideas and initiatives that the Department of Defense, Department of State, and Pacific Command (PACOM) should consider to this end. I cannot claim original authorship of any of these ideas. Rather, they are each the product of discussion and additive collaboration during my work on the staff Senate Armed Services Committee and at Pacific Command. Some of these ideas offer low-hanging fruit that can be easily plucked in the coming months, while others are bold, politically challenging, or come with a heavy financial price tag. They are also heavily focused on security. I will leave it to smarter commentators to offer a companion set of economic recommendations. If the stakes are as high as the National Security Strategy concludes, now is the time for the administration and Congress to truly prioritize the Indo-Pacific region and give full bureaucratic and budgetary consideration to the best ideas for operationalizing its strategy.

Launch a Multi-Billion Dollar Indo-Pacific Security Initiative

Similar to what prompted the European Deterrence Initiative (now at $6.5 billion for Fiscal Year 2019), the military balance is shifting in the Indo-Pacific and a serious investment of defense resources is required to address the operational dilemmas Pacific Command faces. The military services have their own plans for investing in a modernized force for the 2020s and beyond. However, not enough attention or resources have been directed to the areas that will bear strongly on the military balance but that the services and broader Defense Department tend to overlook: critical munitions and storage, operationally relevant military construction, joint exercises, and security assistance. A deterrence initiative, which Sen. John McCain and others have advocated for, could empower PACOM with an additional $3 to $4 billion each year. This could fund, among other items, additional MK-48 torpedoes and the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile, a new joint exercise plan, and additional security assistance for Southeast Asia. It could also support critical infrastructure construction at locations from Yap and Palau to Northern Australia and the Philippines, which are necessary to realign how U.S. forces posture themselves for deterrence and warfighting.

Stand Up a Joint Maritime Task Force Pacific

A Joint Maritime Task Force Pacific (JMTF-P) would operate as a persistent deployment of 4-6 surface ships from a group of like-minded countries that sign on to a statement of principles committing each member to protecting a free and open Indo-Pacific maritime region. This would be modeled off the Standing Naval Forces Atlantic construct that NATO operated in the 1970s and 1980s. The task force would include naval contributions from Japan, Australia, India, European partners, and other Southeast Asian partners. Command and control could be done at sea or ashore from a location like Command Logistics Western Pacific in Singapore. The benefits of a joint task force like this are numerous, including conducting port calls, performing multilateral exercises, and responding to natural disasters and other emergencies, all while sailing together on a regular basis and building cooperation, trust, and interoperability. The Littoral Combat Ships that the United States plans to forward deploy to Singapore could form the nucleus of America’s naval contribution, with additional Seventh Fleet surface assets joining when available.

Open an Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies “West” Office

The Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, the Defense Department’s center for excellence in Hawaii, has a long history of building military-to-military relationships across the Indo-Pacific. However, given its distance from the region and the cost of housing students in Oahu, one way to supplement (not replace) its good work would be to establish a satellite office west of Hawaii in Southeast Asia. Using existing U.S. government property, an executive director and support staff could open this satellite office in a location like Hanoi or Jakarta and coordinate additional military training courses in the heart of the region. This would offer all the obvious benefits of creating new opportunities for cooperation, as well as a new way to work with a host country like Vietnam that is eager for more direct American engagement.

Consider Forward Deploying Another Aircraft Carrier and Air Wing to Japan

The U.S. Navy has maintained an aircraft carrier forward in Japan along with its associated air wing for decades. Doing so offers numerous benefits, including the signal of commitment it sends to U.S. allies in Tokyo and the region, the maintenance costs the Japanese government contributes to support the carrier and air wing, and the response time a carrier from Japan has compared to if it had to sail two weeks from California. With 10 nuclear-powered carriers in the U.S. Navy today, and another scheduled to join the fleet soon, the opportunity is ripe to move an additional carrier forward to Japan in the coming years without upsetting the delicate political balance with the congressional delegations of Washington, California, and Virginia, where carriers are based domestically. This would give the United States the ability to maintain one deployed carrier at all times in the theater, free up other carriers for European Command and Central Command, and send a strong signal of resolve to the region by relocating one of the premier symbols of American military power to Northeast Asia. Critics will offer that it will be too challenging – citing hurdles like cost, space, nuclear maintenance, alliance politics, and aircraft training – but these are all surmountable, especially if Tokyo showed a strong interest privately with American officials to help incur the costs.

Double International Military and Education Training for Southeast Asia Partners and Allies

International Military and Education Training funding has always been recognized as a strong tool to build and shape relationships with future military officers in foreign governments. While funding for Southeast Asian countries is roughly half what is appropriated for Europe and the Middle East, there is a relatively easy opportunity for Congress to double it for the region in FY19, from the $9.8 million requested to $20 million. The State Department could then adopt a similar increase for its FY20 request, thereby significantly increasing the number of officers from Southeast Asia studying in American military institutions over the coming decade.

Enhance Naval Cooperation at Perth, Australia

The Obama administration took several steps to reposition America’s military presence in Southeast Asia in locations like the Philippines, Singapore, and Northern Australia. Similarly, a Naval Force Posture Initiative with Australia would be a step toward upgrading America’s rotational posture in Perth, where the HMAS Stirling Naval Base is located. . Australia bases its submarine force at Stirling, along with other surface combatants, and the base is a gateway to both the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. As with the Littoral Combat Ships that are rotating through Singapore, PACOM has an opportunity to rotate surface combatants through Stirling on a 12- to 24-month timeline. The Pentagon should consider the opportunity Perth represents as part of a Global Force Posture review it is expected to conduct in the coming year.

Strike a Capacity Assistance Plan for Southeast Asia with Japan and Australia

In recent years, the United States has paid increased attention to building the maritime capacity of states like the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Combined, the United States spends roughly $150 million each year funding this effort, while Japan and Australia spend tens of millions more. In recent years, cooperation on capacity building has increased from mere efforts to deconflict to actually coordinating as to where each country should focus its resources. The United States, Japan, and Australia could take this a step further by signing a memorandum of understanding that would formalize Southeast Asia capacity building under a broader Southeast Asia Maritime Capacity Initiative. This could help publicize the individual efforts of each country as a more unified regional effort, while also pushing the three partners’ efforts to cooperate even further.

Launch an Indo-Pacific REFORGER

Exercise Campaign REFORGER was an annual exercise during the Cold War that was intended to ensure NATO had the capacity to quickly deploy forces to West Germany during a crisis or conflict with the Soviet Union. As much as the exercise was designed to enhance training, it was also intended to visibly demonstrate NATO’s ability to conduct the complicated logistics involved to the Soviet Union. Today, given the immense geography of the Indo-Pacific and the speed with which a conflict with China is likely to unfold, the U.S. military needs a similar logistics demonstration to mobilize and deploy American combat power to the theater. This would not be inexpensive and it would disrupt regular deployment cycles, but a bi-annual exercise of this nature is necessary to allow PACOM and Transportation Command to conduct real-world training, identify shortfalls, and to demonstrate to China as well as allies and partners that America’s ability to surge significant combat power to the theater is not in question.

Block Student Visa Applications for Chinese Graduates and Scholars Studying in Key Innovation Sectors

If the United States is engaged in a long-term peacetime competition, as the National Security Strategy concluded, it should consider the implications of allowing Chinese students to participate in American (and Western) educational institutions that seek to foster competitiveness in sectors where China seeks to out-innovate the United States. This includes, but shouldn’t be limited to, artificial intelligence, machine learning, nanotechnology, hypersonic, and autonomous systems. For example, the U.S. Army is helping to fund an Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at MIT where a good number of current postdoctoral researchers and graduate students are Chinese nationals. To be clear, Chinese students studying in the United States are not an issue and should be welcomed, but the current peacetime competition should also warrant a serious discussion about more senior Chinese studying in fields with a direct correlation to innovation sectors that relate to defense and national security. America exerts tremendous energy to ensure sensitive defense technology does not fall into the wrong hands. Why should it treat cutting-edge research in dual-use sectors any differently?

Ensure Taiwan Remains a Frontline Partner in the Indo-Pacific

Taiwan is a vibrant democracy with a strong capitalist economy that is geographically situated in the heart of the Pacific and eager to partner with the United States. Consistent with longstanding policy towards Taiwan, the White House should conduct a comprehensive policy review to ensure U.S. policy is aligned to ensure Taiwan remains a confident, frontline partner in the region. The review should help ensure that arms requests are approved on a case-by-case basis instead of bundling them into packages. The Pentagon should conduct high-end training exercises with Taiwan and create a mechanism to notify Congress about each of them. Finally, there should be a review of the State Department’s Taiwan personnel policy to ensure a qualitative increase in the number of American officials traveling to Taiwan each year to engage their counterparts. The outcome of this review should then be announced jointly at a congressional hearing by the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs and the assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs.

Relocate the Hawaii-Based F-22 Squadron to Japan

Despite plans for a much larger fleet of F-22 Raptors, the Air Force only ended up with 187 when the production line was closed in 2011. In the Indo-Pacific region, two squadrons are based at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, where they have access to excellent training ranges and a strategic location just a short flight from Northeast Asia. However, one squadron of these 5th-generation assets ended up based in Hawaii, where its main mission is to protect the skies over the islands. This Air National Guard squadron does not receive the same level of training or have access to the same high-end ranges that other F-22 pilots get. Moving this squadron of F-22s to the 35th Fighter Wing at Misawa, Japan would be a good way to bring credible combat power forward in the region while introducing additional 5th-generation aircraft into the theater. To offset the loss of aircraft in Hawaii, the F-16s currently based in Misawa could be swapped with the F-22s . Despite the costs and tough political challenges, a move like this should be considered as part of a broader Global Posture Review. A second option would be to move the F-22s to JBER Alaska to supplement the two squadrons already based there and improve their access to training ranges.

Kick-Start U.S.-Japan-Australia-India Quadrilateral Exercises

A renewed interest among the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia to find ways to work together as a Quad” has sparked discussion about how these partners might operationalize their cooperation going forward. India’s Malabar exercise is frequently discussed as a starting point for resuscitating the Quad because it was the original Quad exercise in 2007. One idea for quickly scaling-up Quad participation beyond Malabar in the next 18 months is to plug the Quad into existing exercises, including RIMPAC, Talisman Sabre, Cope North, and Red Flag. Although RIMPAC is just months away, including a joint sail with the Quad countries at the exercise would be a good way to demonstrate its emerging relevance. Similarly, Red Flag Alaska in early 2019 could be organized to include all four countries.

Explore U.S.-Japanese Co-Development of a New Long-Range, Ground-Launched, Land-Attack/Anti-Surface Munition

The United States and Japan have worked successfully on the co-developed SM-3 Block IIA missile, creating a new capability for those two countries as well as, potentially, for allies in Europe and elsewhere in the future. Given the emerging interest of both the U.S. Army and the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force in developing and deploying a series of land-attack and anti-ship munitions, the countries might also have an opportunity to co-develop a new long-range (around 500 kilometers) munition that can be fired from shared systems and potentially exported to other allies and partners in Asia and Europe. Such an initiative would fit well with the conclusions of the National Defense Strategy and the continued focus on Japan’s southwestern islands that Japan’s National Defense Program Guidelines will emphasize later this year.

Nurture a Series of Enduring Track 1.5 Dialogues in the Region

The State Department and Department of Defense have the resources to foster track 1.5 dialogues across the region where government and non-government officials from different countries can come together. These discussions are a good opportunity for decision makers and thought leaders to discuss ongoing events and brainstorm initiatives for cooperation. While many dialogues are already ongoing, there is not enough rigor behind how they fit together into a larger diplomatic effort. The National Security Council should identify a series of priorities for these dialogues for the Defense and State Departments to pursue so that resources can be prioritized. For instance, the government should fund a U.S.-Korean-Japanese trilateral, a U.S.-Australian bilateral, and a U.S.-Australian-Japanese-Indian quadrilateral discussion. These discussions would focus primarily on generating new cooperative initiatives to energize these relationships, and should occur on an annual basis to create sustained relationships and dialogue. It is highly beneficial to a similar track 1.5 discussion each year and tracking how the discussion changes over time.

Rename Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command

When U.S. Pacific Command was established as a unified command in 1947, its geographic area of responsibility ranged from Burma and the eastern Indian Ocean to the west coast of the Americas. That area was adjusted in the 1980s by making the India-Pakistan border the boundary between Central Command and Pacific Command. Despite the command’s newfound responsibility for a huge portion of the Indian Ocean region, its name continues to emphasize its “Pacific” focus and roots. Given the growing economic and strategic importance of the Indian Ocean region to both global affairs and East Asian security, Pacific Command’s mission and responsibilities would be described more accurately by re-designating the command as Indo-Pacific Command. Names matter. A more accurate designation will send a signal to a region that will see the Indo-Pacific commander as the operational leader and representative for the entire theater. This idea and the others outlined above offer a starting point for concrete, security-focused ways the United States can make good on its promise to support a free and open Indo-Pacific region.


Eric Sayers is an Adjunct Fellow for Asian Security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He previously worked as a Professional Staff Member on the Senate Armed Services Committee and as a consultant to U.S. Pacific Command, where he worked as Special Assistant to the Commander.

Image: U.S. Navy/Chris Cavagnaro