Funding the Indo-Pacific Pivot
In recent years, lawmakers on the Armed Services Committees in Congress have attempted to work with Republican and Democratic administrations to strengthen the posture of the United States military in the Indo-Pacific and confront the challenge posed by China. Yet U.S. efforts to truly align resources accordingly have been frustrated since President Barack Obama’s administration first acknowledged that a shift was required.
Most analyses of this “say-do gap” in U.S. defense policy rightly point to inadequate investments in military equipment or mismatched regional force allocations. However, focusing on other defense budget categories can help better target investment toward the Indo-Pacific theater. Specific funding accounts within the defense budget reflect a snapshot of how the Department of Defense distributes resources across the Geographic Combatant Commands to strengthen relationships with regional partners. Within these accounts, funding shifts to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command came surprisingly late in the 2010s and early 2020s, if they materialized at all. Unfortunately, such delays have consequences — the United States cannot surge trust and relies heavily on friendships with Indo-Pacific nations to uphold its interests in the region.
To address this, I recently requested that the annual Department of Defense budget documents submitted to Congress provide separate, region-specific funding exhibits for security cooperation programs across the U.S. military. The United States is balancing higher resource demands in Europe with efforts to reassure Indo-Pacific partners that U.S. regional commitments remain strong. At this critical juncture, policymakers should understand how different types of defense dollars are distributed between theaters. This will facilitate informed spending decisions, and enable America to strengthen its alliances in the Indo-Pacific.
Counting Where It Counts
The first area lawmakers should be paying closer attention to is the International Security Cooperation Programs. This account funds “activities aimed at building partner capacity to address shared national security challenges and operate in tandem with or in lieu of U.S. forces.” Specifically, it includes funding for institutional capacity building, train-and-equip programs, and the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative.
Established by the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 114-92, Sec. 1263), the Maritime Security Initiative was originally created as a five-year program to address regional security concerns in the Indo-Pacific and specifically in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.
In its FY2019 budget request, the Department of Defense also started reporting on the contents of a new account through Section 333 of Title 10 of the U.S. Code. This covers a range of activities like military intelligence operations and maritime and border security operations. While consolidation of these previously distinct authorities under Section 333 has had some drawbacks — such as increased competition between Geographic Combatant Commands for relevant activity funding — it has also provided a new avenue of analysis for how U.S. security cooperation funding is distributed.
International Security Cooperation Accounts Program funds broken down by Global Combatant Command. Source: Congressional Research Service.
For the past three years, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has received between roughly 21-26 percent of annual International Security Cooperation Programs funding, measured against all other Geographic Combatant Commands and related global program support costs. A substantial and noticeable increase occurred between FY2019 and FY2020 when U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s share of jumped from 16 percent to 26 percent, before hitting 21 percent in FY2021. That is an important improvement. The overall International Security Cooperation Programs account only increased by $29 million in nominal terms in FY2020, for example, but U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s share of the pot jumped over $100 million. While encouraging, Washington should be concerned that policymakers have been discussing a pivot to the Indo-Pacific since at least 2011, yet only saw real resource shifts beginning in FY2016 with the establishment of the Maritime Security Initiative and again four years later in FY2020. Lurching steps are better than nothing, but they reflect reactive attempts at urgency, not the sustained attention over time that U.S. partners should expect.
The second area lawmakers should focus on is the Regional Defense Fellowship Program, covered by Section 345. This authorizes funding for training and educational opportunities for senior and mid-level defense and security officials in partner nations. It is crucial for building relationships and strengthening the ability of partner militaries to respond to threats within their own borders.
Regional Defense Fellowship Program funds broken down by Global Combatant Command. Source: Congressional Research Service.
U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s share of this Section 345 funding hovers between 11-15 percent of all recipients — once again including the other Geographic Combatant Commands (Figure 2). Generally, special attention for Section 345 funding is given to Mongolia, Taiwan, and Thailand in the Indo-Pacific theater. Unlike International Security Cooperation Programs funding, no notable funding shifts to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command are present between administrations or fiscal years.
The Pentagon’s Overseas Humanitarian, Disasters, and Civic Aid funding also does not reflect significant funding realignments to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command over the past four years (Figure 3). This funding supports U.S. military participation in collaborative engagements with partner nations to build their capacity to respond to humanitarian disasters and public health challenges, thereby reducing their reliance on foreign relief. Such funding advances military-to-civilian programs that complement military-to-military security cooperation efforts. During U.S. foreign disaster relief efforts, this funding underpins the military capabilities that are delivered as part of the overall U.S. response, including logistics and transportation as well as search and rescue. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s share of such funding has hovered between 17-19 percent of the overall account since FY2019.
Overseas Humanitarian, Disaster, and Civic Aid funding broken down by Global Combatant Command. Source: Congressional Research Service.
The Risk of Unfulfilled Potential
The most salient questions for the future of the Indo-Pacific deal with pacing and timing. The types of interoperability and partner capacity-building efforts that these accounts support help the United States to secure its position as the reliable partner of choice for Indo-Pacific nations and their militaries. China is well prepared to fill any gaps left by the United States, as recently demonstrated by Beijing sending fighter jets to participate in a joint exercise with Thailand. Underfunding these accounts incentivizes U.S. adversaries to gain stronger and larger footholds worldwide.
If the budget for each of these accounts stays flat with inflation — or worse, declines — then U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has a case to make for receiving a larger share of each account. But this will still leave other Geographic Combatant Commands struggling for the money they need to compete with China’s growing influence. Due to Beijing’s global ambitions and reach, each of the Geographic Combatant Commands has a legitimate claim in each of these funding categories. Even if the budget for each account is increased in real terms — thereby raising the funding across theaters overall — Congress should still consider where each additional dollar will have the greatest impact.
As Congress looks to conference — the annual effort to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act — two House provisions will be critical for determining how to treat these accounts and should be maintained in the final bill. Section 1201 requires enhanced reporting on where and how dollars within several of these accounts are allocated. This also itemizes the activities they support — such as the estimated execution costs to complete all Section 345 Department of Defense training activities. I also supported section 1305, which directs U.S. Indo-Pacific Command to submit an annual report on opportunities to enhance defense cooperation with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific, including mutual visits, exercises, training, and equipment opportunities. Both reports will deliver critical information to Congress as policymakers seek to determine the adequacy of funding for these accounts and where improvements can be made.
The results of these reports should inform two decisions from lawmakers. First, we should commit to delivering consistent real funding increases for accounts that directly improve the ability of the United States to leverage and deepen relationships with partners and allies around the world. Second, we should ensure that such funding increases are distributed appropriately between theaters and prioritize the Indo-Pacific. America’s international partners remain one of its greatest strengths. We in Congress should ensure that we are using all the tools available to us to deepen our work with other nations to secure a more peaceful, prosperous, and stable future.
Rep. Rob Wittman represents Virginia’s 1st district in Congress. He is the Vice Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Committee, Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Committee Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, and member of the Tactical Air and Land Subcommittee.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Christopher W. England