The Pentagon Is in Desperate Need of an Intervention From the Top
It’s time for an intervention. For the last decade, the Pentagon has been promising a more distributed and resilient posture in the Indo-Pacific, but it has not kept that promise. Highly concentrated with few active or passive defenses, American forces — and lives — remain dangerously vulnerable to attack. As Chinese military capability and capacity continue to grow, the failure to address this vulnerability is one major reason America has failed to reverse the erosion of the conventional military balance in the Indo-Pacific and restore the credibility of American deterrence.
In a superb article in these pages, Stacie Pettyjohn eloquently makes the case for reducing “the vulnerability of American forces to Chinese air and missile attacks by distributing them across more locations and putting in place a system of passive defenses on existing bases.” A more distributed and resilient posture with a mix of active and passive defenses will not eliminate risk to U.S. forces. But it would enhance deterrence by sowing doubt in the minds of Chinese leaders about the ease or likelihood of success in a conflict. It would impose targeting dilemmas for the Chinese military and force it to expend its missile inventory at a faster rate — and it would provide the margin of safety required to keep U.S. forces in the fight at critical moments of a crisis or conflict.
Most importantly, Pettyjohn argues that changing America’s military posture in the Indo-Pacific requires “a senior champion” to overcome bureaucratic incentives and internal divisions within the Pentagon. She cites a Cold War example of an Air Force general — callsign “Spike” — who successfully advocated defensive measures to protect U.S. aircraft in Europe with the backing of the Air Force chief of staff who declared, “I’m with Spike.”
The Pentagon needs a senior champion on Indo-Pacific posture. But senior defense officials have been saying, “I’m with Spike,” for the last 10 years — to no avail. Closing the Pentagon’s yawning “say-do” gap on posture will require the secretary of defense to personally drive posture as a priority in future budgets. It’s time for Secretary Lloyd Austin to stand up and say, “I am Spike.”
A Problem that Only the Secretary Can Solve
Why is such a personal intervention necessary?
First, the Pentagon’s abysmal record on Indo-Pacific posture over the last 10 years has exposed a major shortfall in the implementation of guidance on posture. Since President Obama’s 2011 “pivot to Asia” speech, Pentagon strategic documents have consistently emphasized the need for a more distributed and resilient Indo-Pacific force posture. That includes the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, the 2018 National Defense Strategy, and the 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report.
And yet, as Shakespeare reminds us, words are not deeds.
Since the early achievements of the Obama administration, the Defense Department has advanced few significant changes to U.S. force posture in the Indo-Pacific. Options widely discussed for years, including the passive defenses advocated by Pettyjohn, remain unrealized. Pacific posture spending remains geographically concentrated, takes too long to produce results, and adapts too slowly to dynamic geopolitical conditions. It’s not that the Pentagon has done nothing to improve its Indo-Pacific force posture, but that nothing it has done has been sufficient to meet the scale and scope of the challenge of an increasingly capable Chinese military.
That’s because secretaries of defense have failed to back broad strategic guidance on posture with specific budgetary guidance. And as implementation has fallen short, Pentagon leaders have either failed to intervene or failed in intervening. This hands-off approach to implementation is particularly ill-suited to posture because its best advocates tend to work in organizations such as the secretary’s policy shop, now led by Undersecretary of Defense Colin Kahl, or the combatant commands that lack direct influence over resources. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, posture typically falls below the political waterline as Congress tends to focus its budgetary interventions on big-ticket items like shipbuilding or aircraft procurement. However, Congress’s creation of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative marked a turning point. Congress has taken notice of the “say-do gap” on posture, created a mechanism to help fix it, and directly called on Pentagon leaders to help better align resources to meet posture needs as it did in the Fiscal Year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.
Second, the secretary of defense is the only leader who can answer the first-order strategic questions that should be answered to establish clear and specific posture requirements and to resource them.
For example, declaring that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” is a policy statement only a secretary of defense can make. By doing so in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, Secretary Jim Mattis initiated a strategic realignment that soon produced the consensus that China is the U.S. military’s pacing challenge.
Starting with the 2022 National Defense Strategy, Austin’s (admittedly more difficult) task is to build a consensus as to what to do about it. To do so, he will have to answer some difficult open questions: On what timeline does the Defense Department seek to address the China challenge? What kind of deterrence strategy does the Pentagon intend to pursue (e.g., deterrence by denial, deterrence by punishment, offshore control, horizontal escalation)? What scenario(s) should guide defense planning? What are the specific implications of these choices for capability investment, global force management, and, yes, posture? Failure to decisively answer these questions will only allow the Pentagon’s internal divisions on posture to deepen and fester.
These internal divisions are a third reason the secretary of defense ought to personally champion posture. Many defense officials support a more distributed and resilient combat-credible forward posture as a necessary predicate for a “deterrence by denial” strategy to deal with the pacing threat of China. They are opposed by others who believe a denial strategy is no longer feasible, that forward forces are no longer survivable, and that a cost-imposition strategy executed by forces operating from very long ranges will prove more effective. Meanwhile, most of the Pentagon is not directly involved with posture and is satisfied with letting this impasse persist. Adequately resourcing posture will be costly and will impose tradeoffs with modernization spending on platforms and weapons with powerful constituencies. That’s a problem many — especially the military services who would be responsible for footing the posture bill — would prefer to avoid. The Pentagon’s posture divide is long-standing and pervasive, and it requires decisive leadership from the secretary of defense to resolve.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the secretary of defense should put an end to the blame-shifting, excuse-making, and complacency that have come to characterize policy and process on posture — and instead infuse the Pentagon with a spirit of ownership, accountability, and urgency. Confronted with its slouch on Indo-Pacific posture, the Pentagon has devolved into finger-pointing behind the scenes, which I witnessed while on the staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Officials from the Office of the Secretary of Defense blame the State Department for a lack of access to key locations, the military services for failing to invest sufficiently in posture, and the combatant commands for their insatiable appetite for forces. The military services blame the secretary’s office for the lack of consistent or specific guidance on posture requirements and the necessary funding to meet them. The services also blame combatant commands for proposing posture investments perceived as too ambitious or half-baked.
The combatant commands blame the Pentagon’s political leadership for ducking tough calls on budgets or global force management necessary to realize major posture changes. They blame the services for shirking posture bills to focus dollars on platform investments that are a better fit for service cultures and budget politics. And the combatant commands blame each other for excessive requests for forces.
The only thing the Pentagon, the services, and the combatant commands agree on is that Congress is to blame as well, supposedly caring only about posture to the extent that it affects individual states or districts.
These frustrations all have a kernel of truth, but the blame game isn’t getting anyone anywhere.
Then there’s the chain of excuses for slow progress across the three traditional components of posture: agreements (or access), footprint, and forces. The Defense Department doesn’t have the access it needs in key locations, especially in Southeast Asia. Even with access, the Defense Department doesn’t have enough mature projects in which to invest that would change its footprint. Even with access and footprint, new forces in the Indo-Pacific are either hard to come by or not necessary given the large number already assigned in the region — or so I was frequently told as a congressional staffer.
But these excuses crumble under scrutiny. There’s more that the Defense Department can do now in each of these areas. It can improve the search for new access by providing a detailed and rank-ordered list of access objectives to inform and guide negotiations led by the State Department. The Defense Department can focus less on where it doesn’t have access and more on where it does by correcting chronic underinvestment in U.S. territories, the so-called “Compact States” in the Second Island Chain, and dispersal and resilience activities in Japan. The Pentagon can more rapidly change the U.S. military’s posture by investing more and earlier in “planning and design” activities to prepare more shovel-ready military construction projects in the region. Austin can more heavily scrutinize and more frequently deny requests for forces from lower priority theaters. Finally, the Defense Department can move more forces into and within the Indo-Pacific theater. Just one-third of the approximately 300,000 forces assigned to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command are located west of the international date line. Of those forward forces, approximately one-quarter are stationed in South Korea where they are focused on the threat from North Korea, not China. This balance needs to change.
The secretary of defense needs to make clear that finger-pointing and excuses will no longer fly. Many aspects of posture are not within the Pentagon’s control, such as allies and partners that are slow or unwilling to grant new partner access or politically induced defense budget uncertainty and dysfunction. The secretary should focus the department on what it can control: how it allocates forces and investments in infrastructure at locations where it already enjoys access. The secretary should make it clear to senior leaders, especially in the services, that he will hold them accountable for progress on posture. Those who effectively prioritize and invest in posture should be able to count on the secretary’s political support. Those who do not should fear the consequences, especially come budget season.
Finally, the secretary needs to convey a sense of urgency on posture. Realizing a distributed and resilient Indo-Pacific posture will be a lengthy endeavor. That’s not an excuse for moving slowly. It’s an imperative to move as quickly as possible.
How Secretary Austin Can “Spike” Posture
Decisive leadership from the secretary of defense on Indo-Pacific posture starts with the 2022 National Defense Strategy. In unclassified form, the strategy should directly state that the Defense Department intends to pursue a “deterrence by denial” strategy to preserve peace and deter war with China; that distributed, resilient, and combat-credible forward posture in the Indo-Pacific is essential for the success of such a strategy; that the current regional force posture does not meet that standard today; and that additional investment is urgently required in the next future year’s defense plan (a five-year budget plan) to correct posture shortfalls. In classified form, the strategy should detail specifics about access, footprint, and forces required to support the strategy.
The strategy should be backed by clear direction from the secretary to the military services in the next Defense Planning Guidance to increase posture investment and elevate posture as a priority in the budget planning process. Building a distributed and resilient posture in the Indo-Pacific will not be cheap. That’s just one more reason why the Pentagon requires significant real and annual budget growth. But regardless of the top-line, the secretary ought to be explicit: America cannot afford to continue concentrating U.S. forces at a small number of fixed bases, perpetuating catastrophic vulnerability to strike, eroding the credibility of American deterrence, and risking numerous American lives and billions of dollars’ worth of ships, aircraft, and other systems and facilities.
Beyond written guidance, the secretary would be wise to emphasize posture in his personal interactions with civilian and military officials in the Pentagon. These officials need to know that this is a personal priority for the secretary and that he will hold them accountable. This is a simple matter of showing interest — convene more meetings on Indo-Pacific posture, ask questions about it in budget discussions usually dominated by platforms, bring it up with service leaders in conversation, and ask potential nominees for senior leadership positions about their views on the subject. He can also enlist the help of Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who has been using data-driven oversight to drive implementation of Austin’s guidance. Focusing more meetings of the Deputy’s Management Action Group — where senior leadership adjudicates budgetary decisions — to posture investments would help demonstrate the priority of posture for Pentagon leadership.
However, in the final analysis, these steps are likely to be insufficient to bring about real progress towards a distributed and resilient Indo-Pacific posture. Instead, the secretary of defense will need to shape bureaucratic incentives by putting money on the line. The Pacific Deterrence Initiative presents a useful mechanism to do just that.
For example, with the FY2024 budget currently under development, Austin could set a combined funding target of somewhere between $3–4 billion for the “infrastructure improvements” and “logistics and prepositioning” lines of effort within the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, roughly double the amount authorized in the FY2022 National Defense Authorization Act. As the Pentagon builds the FY2024 budget, the secretary could withhold that amount in total obligation authority — the total amount of funds available for programming in FY2024— from the military services (excluding the Space Force). In a competitive process, the services would be required to submit proposals that meet congressional intent for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative. The secretary should then empower his senior leadership team to allocate funding to projects or initiatives that most effectively advance the objective of a distributed and resilient Indo-Pacific posture. This is similar to the process and mechanics in use by the deputy secretary in implementing the Rapid Defense Experimentation Reserve, whereby the military services compete for funding to support experimentation with innovative technologies and concepts. It’s also similar to how Pentagon officials and U.S. European Command have evaluated proposals from the military services for funding from the European Deterrence Initiative. In the end, each military service may gain or lose total obligation authority. Only the quality of its posture proposals would determine the result.
To be clear, a “bishop’s fund” of this kind — a pot of money controlled by a senior official for a specific purpose — would stop short of an enduring strategic posture fund. While dedicated funding would be preferable, it’s unlikely to earn support from congressional skeptics of new standalone funds and Pentagon budgeteers who fear such funds would limit the department’s flexibility in budget execution. Instead, building a “bishop’s fund” for posture inside of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative of this kind would enable the secretary of defense to wield more direct influence over posture and require the military services to take posture seriously — not just as a strategic or regional priority but also as a budget priority.
For too long, the Pentagon has moved too slowly to achieve its ambitions of a distributed and resilient force posture in the Indo-Pacific, with dangerous consequences for American security. Urgent change at a significant scale is required, and that starts with the secretary of defense declaring, “I am Spike.”
Dustin Walker is a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was previously a professional staff member on the Senate Armed Services Committee and adviser to Sen. John McCain.