The Case for a Pacific Deterrence Initiative
When war broke out in Ukraine in 2014 the Department of Defense moved swiftly to invest billions in near-term enhancements in Europe to address growing military-operational shortfalls. The European Reassurance Initiative, later renamed the European Deterrence Initiative, invested $22 billion since then in increased presence, exercises, prepositioning, infrastructure, and partner capacity efforts all focused on ensuring the U.S. military and its NATO partners have the right capabilities in position to deter Russia. The Defense Department requested an additional $4.5 billion for the initiative in its new budget request for 2021.
No similar initiative, or urgency, exists for the Indo-Pacific.
The Department of Defense deserves credit for increased investments in new platforms as well as research and development that will pay dividends in the 2030s and beyond in the Indo-Pacific. But the operational dilemmas faced by Indo-Pacific Command demand urgent attention. In order to make American investments in advanced fighters, attack submarines, or breakthroughs in military technology meaningful (in other words, to deter or win a conflict), there must be urgent investment in runways, fuel and munitions storage, theater missile defenses, and command and control architecture to enable U.S. forces in a fight across the Pacific’s vast exterior lines.
Given this, Congress and the administration would be wise to create a new funding mechanism for Indo-Pacific Command priorities, similar to what was launched in Europe for directing funding to these critical yet often overlooked areas. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper should move to launch a Pacific Deterrence Initiative or “PDI” alongside the European Deterrence Initiative during the 2022 budget build to send a powerful strategic message of U.S. commitment to the region. In the interim, the Congress should use the detailed information Indo-Pacific Command will send to Capitol Hill as a part of section 1253 of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act to begin a concerted effort to address these funding shortfalls beginning in the 2021 budget. America and its allies cannot afford to put off these investments for another year.
A Necessity for Europe, But Not Asia?
Beginning in 2014, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Deputy Secretary Bob Work began raising specific concerns about the shifting operational environment in the Pacific. Specifically, Hagel outlined how “China and Russia have been trying to close the technology gap by pursuing and funding long-term, comprehensive military modernization programs.” He concluded that “While the United States currently has a decisive military and technological edge over any potential adversary, our future superiority is not a given,” This concern led to the Pentagon’s “third offset strategy” that served as a military compliment to the Obama administration’s broader rebalance agenda. Despite this new focus on China at the Pentagon, coupled with other initiatives like shifting a portion of the Navy to the Pacific Ocean, a significant shift in resources never followed. Sequestration hit the defense budget hard and left few resources for new initiatives. European Command and Central Command were able to avoid this period of budget tightening through the continued use of overseas contingency operation funds, but these funds were never offered to Indo-Pacific Command.
The growing challenge in the Pacific became all the more clear following the National Defense Strategy release in early 2018. But the resources to address the emerging operational challenges with China, often called a “long-term challenge,” “pacing threat,” or “peacetime competition,” remained stagnant.
As concern and frustration grew, Sen. John McCain, then chairing the Senate Armed Services Committee, proposed the idea of something like the European Defense Initiative, but for Asia, in early 2017. He called it the Indo-Pacific Stability Initiative and sought to add it to the 2018 defense budget to address operational issues faced by Pacific Command, at the cost of $1.5 billion a year over five years. The armed services were doing a decent job of buying new ships, fighters, and other platforms with the capabilities needed to address the military balance in the region, but the operationally relevant infrastructure needed allow the military to fight across the region’s vast geography and complex political access challenges fell short.
And it still does. Despite some momentum for the idea, it received only lukewarm support in the Pentagon. Like many ideas in Washington, it faded into the background.
A new optimism for a Pacific Deterrence Initiative emerged again following Esper’s speech at the Naval War College in August 2019. He made the case to “expand our basing locations” in the Pacific by “investing more time and resources.” Sen. Josh Hawley sent a letter to Esper supporting the concept. Sen. James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Mac Thornberry, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, weighed in with their support. Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, also expressed an interested in the approach. After multiple years of discussing the concept, Congress included Section 1253 in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act that requires the Indo-Pacific Commander to submit an independent assessment by March 15, 2020 of the resources required through 2026 to meet the command’s operational responsibilities.
Gauging Pacific Commitments
Current methods for judging the Pentagon’s commitment to the national defense strategy and Indo-Pacific theater have been reduced to cheering new investments in futuristic weapon systems or following the headlines about the need for forces in the Middle East. We believe a more holistic approach to assessing the Pentagon’s decision-making should consider three separate lines of action: global force distribution, theater investments, and capability investments. The first concerns decisions on how to deploy finite forces globally between combatant commands. The second, resources for joint capabilities that enable the warfighter, to include operationally relevant infrastructure, rotational forces, and exercises. And the third, major investments in new technology and the construction of new military platforms.
This typology is useful because it offers a comprehensive way to judge the Pentagon and congressional commitments across three timelines. First, in the near-term timeline (one to six months) that occurs when the secretary of defense balances the deployment of forces among combatant command requests. Second, the medium-term timeline (two to five years) where investments by the services and combatant commanders in theater infrastructure and posture occur. Finally, the long-term budget decisions (10 to 15 years) to invest in new technologies and major platforms that will not come to the battlefield until the 2030s.
Commitments and investment in the Pacific theater have been largely focused on the first and third categories, and the record is mixed. On global force distribution, the first category, the Department faces enduring pressure in the near term to resource commitments in the Middle East and Europe, despite continuing to call the Pacific the “priority theater.” The competition for the deployment of aircraft carriers, amphibious ships, multi-mission maritime aircraft like the P-8, missile defense assets like THAAD, and other capabilities that plays out at the Pentagon each month continues to lean in favor of Central Command and European Command.
On capability investments, our third category, the 2020 budget and new 2021 request to Congress devote considerable resources to major conventional platforms such as bombers, fighters, attack submarines, and destroyers and significant research and development investment in areas like artificial intelligence, intermediate range missiles, and hypersonic weapons. This is the area that is most often cited when the Pentagon seeks to make the case that it is shifting to implement the National Defense Strategy. Continuing to invest in the right force structure and future technologies while divesting in areas less relevant to great-power competition is critical. However, these investments aren’t focused on addressing the operational issues of 2025, but rather building a military for the 2030s and beyond. The Pentagon can do better.
Towards a Pacific Deterrence Initiative
Any military conflict in the Pacific will be a “come as you are fight.” There will be little time to swing assets like bombers and tankers and even less time for naval platforms to deploy or move to the theater in support. This places an even greater emphasis on our second category of theater investments that are central to enabling the “blunt layer” of the National Defense Strategy. To this point, the Pentagon may not even receive a passing grade for its emphasis on theater investments.
The services have moved to invest in the platforms that will be needed in the theater in the future, but have shown a fleeting interest in investing dollars in the enabling capabilities that are critical to execute the various warfighting concepts they are now developing. Flashy new platforms will be needed, but so will the high-end munitions, runways and port infrastructure, deployable air bases, fuel and munition storage, command and control tools, and other joint capabilities needed to effectively employ these platforms in the face of the Pacific’s geographic and operational challenges. While the European Deterrence Initiative has allowed European Command to divert billions towards these issues alongside rotational forces, joint exercises, and enhanced security assistance, the same type of investments in the Pacific remain the greatest shortfall to implementation of the National Defense Strategy. It should also be emphasized that theater investments are the area where relatively small amounts of money can have the greatest impact on the military balance in the near term.
Given the growth of the European Deterrence Initiative and the subsequent failure of a Pacific version to materialize, it is valuable to consider how their origins differenced. First, the European initiative was created in response to a major crisis. A similar crisis of China’s making is much less likely to emerge in Asia and thus the political challenge will be to make this considerable change in order to prevent a future crisis. Second, because of the crisis in Europe and need to respond, the European effort was quickly in the overseas contingency operation budget. There is little possibility of this being extended to Indo-Pacific Command so a new initiative will need to be funded out of the base budget, a much more difficult task. Finally, the European Deterrence Initiative was launched by the Obama administration and Congress was eager to support it as a major response to Russian aggression. A Pacific companion will need to be pulled along by Congress until this administration or the next choses to adopt the approach, making its organization and execution much less effective.
A Strategic Opportunity and Budgetary Necessity
The months ahead can have a major impact on the approach we take to addressing the military balance in the Pacific. A few key items should guide the thinking of the Pentagon and the congressional defense committees. First, both the Pentagon and Congress should view a Pacific Deterrence Initiative not as a basic budget exercise but a broader strategic opportunity to message the U.S. commitment to the region. An alignment of the Pentagon and Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill around this effort would be a real opportunity to begin to do in Asia what has already occurred in Europe in the last seven years. The message the European Deterrence Initiative has sent NATO and Russia should be the same signal we want to send our Asian allies and partners as well as those in Beijing who have grown confident of their military capabilities.
Second, Congress should use the Section 1253 report from Indo-Pacific Command that is expected to be delivered this month to conduct oversight briefings and identify the pressing items in the 2021 budget that appropriators can begin to put resources towards. The European Deterrence Initiative began modestly in 2015 with $985 million and 2016 with $789 million. Congress should look to appropriate similar spending levels in the Pacific this year. While the services will own the actual budgets, Congress should also utilize a specific spending account for the initiative so that all funding can be visualized in one table. This would ensure funding commitments are clear to allies and the press, similar to the budget book for Europe each year.
Finally, defense leaders should view the consensus around this concept as an opportunity to work with the Congress to formalize a Pacific Deterrence Initiative in the 2022 budget request after consultation with Congress about its structure and the type of activities it should include. This would bring more rigor to the budget formation process going forward and signal an enduring commitment in future budget years.
Randy Schriver is chairman of the board of the Project 2049 Institute. He served as the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific affairs from 2018 to 2019.
Eric Sayers is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He previously was a special assistant to the commander of Indo-Pacific Command and a professional staff member on the Senate Armed Services Committee under Sen. John McCain.