Don’t Trust the Process: Moving from Words to Actions on the Indo-Pacific Posture
Far from being a deterrent to aggression, American military bases in Asia are a tempting target. U.S. Indo-Pacific bases are vulnerable to myriad Chinese attacks. Threats to airbases are especially worrying since they host so much concentrated U.S. combat power, incentivizing a Chinese first strike. Actions to address these problems have been tardy and insufficient, despite repeated Pentagon statements prioritizing U.S. posture in the region.
Few defense analysts focused on the Indo-Pacific would quibble with these statements, yet these problems continue, and solutions remain unclear. Two recent War on the Rocks articles by my colleagues Stacie Pettyjohn and Dustin Walker aptly describe the Pentagon’s failure to improve U.S. posture in the Indo-Pacific. Pettyjohn cites a Cold War-era Air Force chief of staff who emphatically argued for airbase resiliency in Europe as a model for today’s senior leaders to advocate for passive defenses. Walker prods the secretary and deputy secretary of defense to take a more aggressive role on force posture. Both argue that these problems cannot be solved absent senior leader engagement.
I agree with both authors that senior leader engagement is necessary, but I believe the Pentagon also needs to reform the processes and organizations responsible for overseeing posture. Secretaries and service chiefs should prioritize posture, but they can’t fix this issue without help. Moving from words to poured concrete requires subordinate organizations and processes to execute guidance and policies. Fixing the Indo-Pacific posture will require targeted policies to incentivize the implementation of posture initiatives in the near term in addition to long-term reforms to ensure that posture considerations have a more prominent role in the defense budgeting process.
It may be helpful to clarify what posture means in this context. Generally, the Pentagon defines posture — or force posture — as forces, places, and agreements. Forces are self-explanatory — they’re military forces stationed in or operating from overseas locations. Places can include everything from big bases like Andersen Air Force Base on Guam to small forward operating locations to prepositioned stocks. Agreements define what U.S. forces can do in locations under certain conditions, to include things like overflight access for U.S. aircraft.
Like Pettyjohn and Walker, I focus here on places and their vulnerability. For reasons explained above, airbases are a primary concern, but they aren’t the only vulnerable locations. Ports, shipyards, prepositioned equipment, and forward command centers are also potential targets for enemy attacks. Making these locations more resilient through a mix of passive defenses (like aircraft shelters), dispersal, redundancy, rapid repair, and, in some cases, active defenses, is key. Resiliency requires the reallocation of money to build new facilities and harden existing locations, buy equipment, pay for personnel and training, and move forces to new locations. Inserting such investments into defense budgets has proven difficult.
Senior leaders can’t demand these investments unilaterally because their authority is negotiated. Unlike orders in the field, guidance from a secretary or chief is akin to a request: it can be interpreted, relitigated, or ignored. Senior leaders can try forcing compliance or creating their own processes, but this approach relies on the leader’s attention, and can generate bureaucratic “antibodies,” as those people and organizations opposed to change find ways to delay and resist.
To drive lasting change, senior leaders depend on processes they don’t fully control to provide them with policy options and implement their decisions. When it comes to Indo-Pacific posture, processes like the Global Posture Executive Council and Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution aren’t presenting good posture options to senior leaders, nor are they translating guidance into action. The result is inertia.
Bureaucratic inertia influencing posture has a long history. As Pettyjohn’s 1960s-era anecdote illustrates, underinvestment in basing isn’t new. More recently, China’s threats to the Indo-Pacific basin have been brewing for 20 years. It’s been a decade since President Barack Obama announced the Pacific pivot — or rebalance — and the Pentagon codified it in the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance. Since then, six defense secretaries have been unable to roll the posture boulder up the hill. Barring major changes, Secretary Lloyd Austin will be yet another Sisyphus. Solving the posture problem therefore requires understanding why Pentagon processes bias toward underinvesting in posture and targeting new policies to reform those processes.
Posture has long fallen into cracks in bureaucratic responsibility dating back at least as far as the National Security Act of 1947. However, the Goldwater-Nichols reforms exacerbated its status as a latchkey kid by finally and completely removing the armed services and their chiefs from the operational chain of command. The geographic combatant commands got custody of posture, since they would be most impacted by deficiencies in overseas forces, basing, or access agreements. Unfortunately, they don’t have the money or the authority to invest in posture. The armed services have the money and the authority, but they don’t want to pay for something they view as outside their responsibility to train, organize, and equip forces.
This situation forces the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff to serve as mediators, cajoling the armed services to pay their due, adjudicating disputes, and covering emergency costs. Unfortunately, these organizations and their processes cannot perform this role. Instead, they often inhibit long-term posture investments.
The Goldwater-Nichols divorce between force providers and force employers reflects a broader schism in the Pentagon processes between near- and long-term planning. The near-term faction includes the combatant commands and the civilian and Joint Staff offices that oversee contingency planning and the allocation of forces overseas, or “Global Force Management” in Pentagon-ese. This group “owns” posture through bodies like the Global Posture Executive Council. This council is purely advisory, however, and sees its role as managing Combatant Commands’ requests and blocking outlandish or analytically unsupported ideas. The long-term faction includes the armed services and the civilian and joint staff offices that oversee the planning, programming, budgeting, and execution process. This group “owns” the budget. The staffs running these processes should coordinate their efforts to manage resources and risks across timelines. Instead, they operate in parallel, only converging in the person of a handful of senior leaders.
This staff schism has many negative consequences, but it’s particularly bad for building a more resilient Indo-Pacific posture. The near-term organizations and processes responsible for posture don’t focus on enduring investments, don’t have direct access to the budget, and lack the detailed cost analyses needed to effectively argue for a greater share of the budget. Long-term programming and budgeting organizations, like the office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, need these analyses to fit posture investments into a budget that prioritizes massive, multi-decade acquisition programs backed by the services and Capitol Hill. Every budget cycle, long-term investments needed to make Indo-Pacific posture more resilient fall into this process Catch-22.
Even if the Air Force and Indo-Pacific Command were to submit a detailed budget proposal for improving airbase resilience in the Indo-Pacific that included missile defenses, they’d have to get the Army’s approval. The Key West Agreement of 1948 paved the way for the creation of an independent Air Force and the establishment of the Department of Defense. It also gave the Army responsibility for defending airbases, which it retains today. The Air Force can invest in passive defenses unilaterally, but these work better in concert with active defenses, which the Army controls and has historically been reticent to commit to airbase defense. To make matters even more complicated, the executive agency for construction in Indo-Pacific Command is Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command. Building more resilient Air Force posture in the Indo-Pacific therefore requires both Army and Navy buy-in.
Beyond these procedural and organizational mismatches between responsibilities and budgetary authorities, the way the Pentagon considers force-planning and military power tends to de-emphasize posture. The “capability-capacity-readiness” framework Pentagon force planners use to describe tradeoffs is a good example. Capability means upgrading or buying new equipment — like buying a new radar or replacing an old ship with a new one. Capacity describes the quantity of equipment, people, and units the department has. Readiness can mean many things, but it principally means the ability of units to perform their missions and comprises the condition of materiel and personnel as well as unit training.
Posture — particularly passive measures to increase resilience — doesn’t fit neatly into these categories. Upgrading missile defenses could be a capability investment, but what about expanding runways or building aircraft shelters? These investments don’t increase capability or capacity. They might fit under readiness, but adding a runway doesn’t increase the mission-capable rates of aircraft at that base. That is, unless an adversary attacks the base with missiles, in which case these investments would be quite helpful. But that’s not how the Pentagon analyzes or measures readiness.
Instead, the benefits of posture investments are highly contingent and scenario- and concept-specific. Hardening Andersen Air Force Base on Guam is critical to keep it running during prospective future conflicts with China, for example, but not useful for conflicts outside the Indo-Pacific. Given long-term Chinese threats to bases like Andersen, some argue for concepts that largely eschew concentrated forward bases in favor of standoff strikes from a distributed posture. The value of posture investments are therefore highly continent on who the Pentagon plans to fight, how it plans to fight, and where it plans to fight. By contrast, larger, more capable, or more ready forces can contribute across a range of scenarios and concepts. This flexibility gives investments in forces a key advantage over investments in posture during final budget deliberations.
Even within specific scenarios, analytic arguments for posture investments aren’t always compelling. Additional runways, aircraft shelters, and hardened fuel storage aren’t silver-bullet solutions to Chinese missile threats. To paraphrase Dave Ochmanek, a leading defense analyst and longtime advocate of airbase defense, they reduce the degree to which U.S. forces get their “rear-ends” handed to them. Analysts steeped in these issues know the value of reduced rear-end-handing, but this argument often loses in budget debates to the allure of new ships, aircraft, or vehicles, all of which can take the fight to the enemy in ways passive defenses cannot.
Given these obstacles, underinvesting in posture seems inevitable. But there are solutions to this problem: one immediate, and one more lasting. First, the short-term fix. Ideally, the Pentagon would have time to revamp its processes and invest in Indo-Pacific posture through proper channels. Sadly, it’s 2022, not 2002. There isn’t time to wait for process reforms. Instead, Congress and the Office of the Secretary of Defense are going to have to throw money at the problem.
This approach has had success recently. Since 2015, the Pentagon has made strides to restore its force posture in Europe. The European Deterrence Initiative and its predecessor, the European Reassurance Initiative haven’t been perfect, but they’ve shored up U.S. posture for deterring Russian aggression against NATO or defending allies near Russia if deterrence fails. The vast majority of the funding has gone toward additional forces, prepositioned equipment and materiel, or infrastructure improvements. These initiatives’ clearest lesson was using funding outside the base defense budget. The bulk of the money came from the overseas contingency operations “slush fund.” This meant posture spending wouldn’t crowd out other priorities. It was “free money” for the services and European Command. Rather than a latchkey kid, posture became a cash cow.
Along these lines, Walker’s proposal for an Indo-Pacific posture “bishop’s fund” is a good start, but it should be outside the base budget to avoid displacing other investments. Rather than a cost to be borne, it should be a reward to be won. The fact that Congress responded to the Pentagon’s Fiscal Year 2022 Pacific Deterrence Initiative Proposals with incredulity and ultimately approved a $2.1b increase in the final National Defense Authorization Act for 2022 suggests political support exists for such extra-budgetary approaches. The FY2023 budget should expand and deepen the investments.
Ensuring the sustainable management of U.S. Indo-Pacific basing posture will require more than an injection of cash. The processes and organizational structures that got the Defense Department into this mess need substantial reforms. These reforms must achieve two critical outcomes. First, they must result in organizations and processes focused solely on long-term posture investments. Existing near-term processes like the Global Posture Executive Council can remain, but they must divest responsibility for long-term investments resolved through the budget process. Second, these long-term posture organizations need sufficient authority, resources, and access to the budget process to ensure that they don’t get crowded out by service priorities. Such organizations could ensure posture investments get sufficient analytic support, attention, and a place at the budget table.
The real question is where these organizations and processes should reside. Placing them inside the armed services ensures that they’ll have access, authority, and analytic resources. But it could encourage them to push service priorities, rather than solutions to problems that future Indo-Pacific commanders might face. Placing them inside the combatant commands would help ensure that they’ll reflect regional, vice service concerns. However, this approach raises the possibility that these organizations will remain spectators, rather than full participants in the budget process.
On balance, the armed services appear a better home, provided combatant commands get significant input on their proposals. Joint Staff responsibility for posture investments should shift from the J-5 Strategy directorate to the J-8 Resources directorate. In the Office of the Secretary of Defense, long-term posture issues should shift from the Plans office to the Strategy and Force Development office. These shifts would create Joint Staff and civilian offices responsible for tradeoffs between capability, capacity, readiness, and posture that possess the ability and authority to ensure that posture investments get a proper hearing throughout the planning, programming, budgeting, and execution process.
The reforms proposed here will demand substantial engagement in the Pentagon and Congress. Luckily, there are two upcoming Congressionally mandated commissions that could provide venues for this engagement. The Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution commission should examine why the Pentagon’s budget process consistently underinvests in posture and other closely related issues like logistics and make recommendations to fix these issues. The National Defense Strategy Commission should likewise examine why posture is a consistent weakness in defense strategy — especially regarding China — and make recommendations to strengthen it.
Just as there is no easy solution to the challenges China’s rise poses to U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific, there is no easy way to surmount the obstacles to strengthening U.S. Indo-Pacific posture. Clearly, senior leaders ought to assess difficult tradeoffs, make clear decisions, and enforce those decisions. But that only works if the processes and organizations that translate senior leaders’ intentions into actions support the desired outcome, rather than obstruct it. After 20 years spent failing to address Chinese threats to U.S. bases and forces in the Indo-Pacific, it is time for senior Pentagon leadership and Congress to stop trusting the process and start reforming it. Only then will we be able turn rhetoric into reinforced concrete.
Chris Dougherty is a senior fellow in the Defense Program and co-lead of the Gaming Lab at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Prior to joining CNAS, Dougherty served as senior adviser to the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development at the Department of Defense.