Listen to America’s Top Commander in the Indo-Pacific and Fund the Pacific Deterrence Initiative
In his final appearance before the congressional armed services committees, the outgoing top American commander in the Pacific warned this month that a failure to devote additional military resources to the region risks inviting aggression from the People’s Republic of China. In a comment that should make Americans sit up and pay attention, Adm. Phil Davidson, the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, suggested that Beijing could attempt to attack Taiwan “in the next six years.”
To deter such aggression, Washington should fully support the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, a congressionally driven effort to ensure that Indo-Pacific Command has the capabilities it needs. More specifically, the Joe Biden administration should request, and Congress should provide, the authorizations and funding necessary to provide the additional region-specific resources detailed in Indo-Pacific Command’s annual Section 1251 Assessment. This assessment provides Congress an unfiltered picture of what the command closest to the threat from China needs.
One might assume supporting such an urgent request from the American commander closest to the most pressing threat would be a no-brainer. Decision-makers in the Pentagon, admittedly, confront the unenviable task of balancing finite resources with a plethora of expensive requests from all of the geographic combatant commands. Given the severity of the threat from Beijing, however, one might assume urgent and repeated requests coming from the Indo-Pacific would carry more weight in Washington.
Unfortunately, too often, that would be a poor assumption. Despite a willingness to use the overseas contingency operations account — the main warfighting account with the least restrictions on its use — to fund a similar program in Europe, staff in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the military services have persistently opposed using the same account to fund the Pacific Deterrence Initiative. That leaves only finite base-budget funding, which funds everything else the Department of Defense does, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the services are reluctant to divert that funding away from other programs. Accordingly, Indo-Pacific Command finds key Pacific Deterrence Initiative priorities perennially unfunded as the military balance of power in the Pacific continues to erode.
Absent intervention, this year will likely be no different. The military services will once again brush aside Davidson’s warning and Indo-Pacific Command’s assessment — failing to provide America’s servicemembers in the Pacific many of the capabilities they need to accomplish their assigned missions. Most problematically, that includes Davidson’s top unfunded request: vital additional air and missile defense protection for Guam.
To prevent such a mistake, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin should intervene to ensure his department’s budget request supports the Pacific Deterrence Initiative. That, however, is unlikely. Accordingly, Congress will probably have to intervene once again to ensure capability gaps in the Pacific do not worsen. Either case will probably require the use of overseas contingency operations funding.
A Longstanding Challenge
The Obama administration trumpeted a “pivot” to the Pacific but was unable to sufficiently improve U.S. military capabilities in the region. The late Sen. John McCain issued a prescient white paper in 2017 that highlighted the eroding security situation in the region and called for exactly the type of Pacific-specific posture that would later become the basis for the Indo-Asia-Pacific Stability Initiative in the 2018 defense bill and the Pacific Deterrence Initiative in the 2021 defense bill. The previous head of Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, submitted similar requests in 2017 and 2018.
All the while, China has continued investing in the most significant military modernization in its history, and the balance of forces continues to erode for the United States.
The Donald Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy brought belated and much-needed clarity regarding the priority of the threat from China. But the Pentagon has not yet transformed most of the research and development programs initiated during the last administration into programs of record delivered to forward-positioned forces in the Indo-Pacific. And, as military leaders will tell you, fielded capabilities — not research and development programs — are what deters aggression.
To be fair, successive annual Pentagon budget requests asked for congressional support for programs largely focused on China (and Russia). Those include, for example, Virginia-class submarine and F-35 fighter procurement programs, as well as B-21 bombers and hypersonic weapon research and development programs.
It was not coincidental that Congress eagerly supported these programs. These submarines, planes, and missiles are developed and built in the United States, and members of Congress are eager to keep those jobs in their districts and keep contractors and subcontractors happy. But less glamorous, but equally vital, investments related to overseas infrastructure, logistics, and training have no such constituency and often fail to garner sufficient support.
That is part of the reason why Indo-Pacific Command has again sounded the alarm in its assessments over the last two years. The military balance of power in the region continues to become “more unfavorable,” the combatant command warned. The United States is accumulating “additional risk that may embolden adversaries to unilaterally attempt to change the status quo.”
The Pentagon’s failure to provide Indo-Pacific Command much of the region-specific resources it requires to reverse the deteriorating security situation has regularly forced Congress to add capabilities that the command needed.
Consider several examples from the 2019 budget. Congress added funding to increase Navy and Air Force procurement of long-range anti-ship missiles, the weapon both services tout as an exemplar of their commitment to preparing for conflict with China. Congress added funding for MK-48 heavyweight torpedoes, the Navy’s most effective weapon against China’s ships and submarines. Congress added air base prepositioning sets into the Air Force’s budget to support the “agile combat employment” concept in the Pacific. And Congress added funding to the Army’s budget to procure “gap filler” cruise missile defense systems (although it’s important to note that American bases in the Pacific remain woefully unprotected from the cruise missile threat).
Nevertheless, it became clear to the leadership and staff of the Senate and House Armed Services committees that these ad hoc congressional “adds” were not enough. So, frustrated with successive Defense Department budget requests that paid insufficient attention to growing needs in the region, Congress used the 2020 defense bill to essentially go around the Pentagon and require an “independent assessment” from Indo-Pacific Command regarding the “activities and resources required.”
When Indo-Pacific Command submitted the report to Congress in March 2020, the command did not pull any punches. The subsequent 1251 Assessment submitted to Congress earlier this year repeated many of the same concerns and requests. Both iterations provide an unfiltered picture of what the command closest to the threat from China still needs.
What the Warfighters Need
That is why it is worth taking the 1251 Assessment seriously and examining what Indo-Pacific Command is prioritizing.
As the most recent 1251 Assessment submitted last month makes clear, Indo-Pacific Command seeks more than $27 billion in dedicated spending over the next five years. That amount is broken up into five areas. Two of the areas — lethality, which includes surveillance radars, air defense systems, and strike weapons; and posture, which involves base construction, upgrades, and prepositioning equipment — account for about 60 percent of the funding.
Another big element (25 percent) is joint exercise funding, which includes significant spending on joint training ranges stretching from San Diego to Japan. The final two elements are modest requests for alliance integration (including capability development) and enabling forces (both logistics and information operations). A number of these requests mirror existing military service funding requests, so some of the $27 billion is in the existing budget plan. However, as the 1251 Assessment demonstrates, some of the larger and most vital Pacific Deterrence Initiative expenditures, such as the Guam Defense System, are currently unfunded.
The Guam Defense System is a perfect example of how critical and fragile the Pacific Deterrence Initiative program is. The military requirement is to defend the United States’ largest airfield in the Pacific, numerous logistics and prepositioned stores, and a submarine base. But the national mission is even dearer: to defend approximately 170,000 U.S. citizens living in the sovereign U.S. territory.
The Guam Defense System will bring an integrated command-and-control system, surveillance radars, weapons launchers, and missiles to defend Guam. The heart of this system will be an Aegis Ashore naval fire-control system similar to what the United States has built in Poland and Romania. But the Guam Defense System will likely be expanded to control offensive-strike systems and to involve even more remote launchers and surveillance radars than currently planned (maybe scattered throughout the Marianas Islands). Eventually, the Guam Defense System will also include hypersonic missile defense capabilities.
Those expansions — necessary, in our view — will increase the cost above the initial $1.7 billion price tag. The whole Guam Defense System effort could end up closer to $3 billion.
Those inclined to balk at such a cost should consider that Indo-Pacific Command believes Guam to be the U.S. military’s “most important operating location in the Western Pacific” — one the United States “must fight from” and “must also fight for.” And it is the command’s job to evaluate the military situation in and around Guam and provide the authoritative recommendation on the necessary response.
Critics of the Guam Defense System should also consider the lack of alternatives. Existing missile defense systems cannot handle the current or future threats facing Guam, and Navy ships can’t cover all angles of attack to the island without a persistent deployment of three or four Aegis-equipped ships that are desperately needed elsewhere.
Despite all of this, absent congressional or White House intervention, when it submits its annual budget request this May, the Pentagon may once again fail to provide Indo-Pacific Command what it needs — including the Guam Defense System.
Austin or Congress to the Rescue?
How can this be?
The critical issue is how to pay for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative. It is certainly true that, as always, there are more combatant requirements than resources to address them. But, in this case, that explanation is not sufficient. A decisive factor is how the funding is categorized.
Here, the comparison to the similar European Deterrence Initiative, a plan to strengthen the U.S. military posture in Europe vis-à-vis Russia, is illuminating. Over the past five years, following Putin’s aggression in Crimea, the Pentagon requested and Congress provided $26.9 billion for the European Deterrence Initiative. This was possible because of the decision to use overseas contingency operations funds as the predominant source of program funding. Overseas contingency operations funds were, of course, initially intended for the execution of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in practice, the overseas contingency operations fund provided the budget space to meet U.S. European Command’s requirements without forcing the services to forgo other needed programs.
Through some policy jujitsu, the Pentagon determined (and the Hill has not challenged the decision) that funding for U.S. European Command can come out of the overseas contingency operations account, but funds for Indo-Pacific Command cannot. Even as the consensus that China represents the preeminent threat solidified last year, the European Deterrence Initiative received $5.9 billion in funding while programs supportive of deterrence in the Pacific received only $2.2 billion — and that all from service budgets, not overseas contingency operations funds.
This is not to dismiss the serious threat from Moscow. But, if Beijing is indeed America’s greatest threat, and the Indo-Pacific the theater most important to U.S. interests, it is difficult to understand or explain the insistence on confining Indo-Pacific Command’s needs to the base budget.
Perhaps it is because Moscow already invaded and annexed Crimea. Does Washington really have to wait to act until Beijing undertakes aggression toward Taiwan? It could save lives and money to instead act now to prevent that aggression in the first place by using overseas contingency operations funding to pay for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.
Some suggest the mainland’s threat to Taiwan is overhyped. But Beijing’s growing military capabilities, aggressive actions in the seas and skies around Taiwan, and long-term strategic objectives suggest the burden of proof should be on those who claim China won’t invade Taiwan. It is worth remembering that the 2018 bipartisan congressionally mandated National Defense Strategy Commission (that included Kathleen Hicks, the newly confirmed deputy secretary of defense) listed aggression in the Taiwan Strait as one of their top concerns. It is also worth remembering that one of the lessons of the Korean War is that the United States should not too quickly dismiss warnings from Beijing.
To address this growing threat, Washington should find a way to fund the Pacific Deterrence Initiative — and the only short-term answer is almost certainly the overseas contingency operations account. To be sure, using overseas contingency operations funds can have costs. It’s often harder to predict and plan for life cycle maintenance funds for programs that use these more flexible funds compared to those funded from the base budget. But more important than all of that is the need to urgently provide America’s warfighters what they require in light of the growing threat from Beijing. And, in the short term, unfortunately, drawing on the overseas contingency operations account may be the only way to get that done.
The Guam Defense System case study demonstrates that the Pentagon will not solve this resourcing problem for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative any time soon otherwise. The system’s mission (air defense of land-based sites) is a traditionally Army mission; the principal site to be protected (Anderson Air Base) is an Air Force asset; and the only system that can conduct the mission (Aegis Ashore) is a Navy system. This is a Goldwater-Nichols nightmare. The individual services’ budgeting processes can’t, or won’t, tackle this problem.
Austin could remedy this. He could establish his office’s leadership over the service acquisition systems and direct service payments into a designated fund to build the Guam Defense System, or the department could open up the Pacific Deterrence Initiative to overseas contingency operations funds for certain joint projects, such as the Guam Defense System. Unfortunately, given previous failures to gain Pacific-specific funding and the military services’ desire to protect their existing programs, neither of those solutions is likely. As a new secretary of defense, Austin may be reluctant to buck entrenched bureaucratic inertia on the issue and may want to avoid any congressional criticism for the increased use of the overseas contingency operations account.
This means that, absent congressional intervention, the Guam Defense System will probably be “studied” instead of funded for the next year or two. As Washington dithers, Beijing will continue to field new missiles designed to target Guam, a threat Davidson warns will become particularly acute by 2026.
The Guam Defense System provides just one example of the funding challenges facing the Pacific Deterrence Initiative. The joint exercise programs, training and experimentation ranges, surveillance radars, and prepositioning supplies requests in the Pacific Deterrence Initiative could also run into service objections. And without overseas contingency operations funding, top-down leadership, or congressional intervention, they too will be studied and delayed or shrunken as the Chinese threat grows.
The Pacific Deterrence Initiative is a good plan. It recognizes risks, establishes priorities, identifies opportunities, and proposes the allocation of finite resources. It lays out a blueprint whereby $27 billion in targeted Pacific-specific investments over five years can play a potentially decisive role in securing America’s interests. It signals to allies and partners, and to China, that the United States is prioritizing the competition in the Pacific and making the investments necessary for credible deterrence.
Forward-positioned servicemembers closest to the Chinese threat have clearly told Washington what they need to deter aggression.
The only question now is whether the Biden administration, the Pentagon, and Congress will finally listen and act. If they do, America can protect its interests and deter aggression, saving money and lives in the long run. If Washington once again ignores the command’s warnings, Davidson’s predictions may prove tragically prescient.
Mark Montgomery is the senior director of the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Prior to this, he was policy director for the Senate Armed Services Committee under the late Sen. John S. McCain and is a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy.
Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). He spent nearly nine years working in the U.S. Senate, including six years as the top defense advisor to Sen. Kelly Ayotte, then the senior Republican on the Armed Services Readiness and Management Support Subcommittee. He has also served as a U.S. Army officer, Black Hawk pilot, and assistant professor at West Point.