The credibility of American deterrence rests on a simple foundation. America prevents wars by convincing its adversaries they cannot win. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said it succinctly: Deterrence is achieved when the enemy decides, “Not today. You, militarily, cannot win it, so don’t even try it.” Currently, in the Indo-Pacific, that foundation of deterrence is crumbling as an increasingly aggressive China continues its comprehensive military modernization.
This is not a partisan issue. Five years ago, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter warned that China was modernizing its military “to try to close the gap and erode our superiority in every domain.” Then, two years ago, Mattis assessed that’s exactly what happened, stating that America’s “competitive edge has eroded in every domain of warfare … and it is continuing to erode.” Even more bluntly, the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission report cautioned, “America’s military superiority…has eroded to a dangerous degree” to the point that “the U.S. military could lose the next state-versus-state war it fights.”
The best way to protect U.S. security and prosperity in Asia is to maintain a credible balance of military power. But America’s ability to do so is at risk. And it’s not just U.S. interests at stake. Allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific are watching closely, and wondering whether they will be able to count on America.
With the stakes so high, the time for action is now. That’s why this year we intend to establish a Pacific Deterrence Initiative in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021. The Pacific Deterrence Initiative will enhance budgetary transparency and oversight, and focus resources on key military capabilities to deter China. The initiative will also reassure U.S. allies and partners, and send a strong signal to the Chinese Communist Party that the American people are committed to defending U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific.
What the Pacific Deterrence Initiative Will Do
The Pentagon is taking challenges in the Indo-Pacific seriously, and has made some important progress implementing the National Defense Strategy in the region. That’s especially true when it comes to rebuilding readiness and investing in modernization. Unfortunately, the progress to date has been insufficient to achieve the “urgent change at significant scale” that is required. The Pacific Deterrence Initiative will improve the implementation of the National Defense Strategy in the Indo-Pacific, and incentivize the Pentagon to better prioritize the region in its annual budget process.
First, the Pacific Deterrence Initiative will enhance budgetary transparency and congressional oversight. The National Defense Strategy refocused the Pentagon on strategic competition with China and Russia, elevating the priority of the Indo-Pacific and European theaters. But while translating regional priorities into budget priorities is a critical aspect of implementing the National Defense Strategy, it’s also a major challenge for the current Pentagon budget process.
The one notable exception is Europe. The European Deterrence Initiative, created in 2014 to respond to rising threats from Russia, provides a snapshot of the key efforts the Defense Department is taking to deter aggression in the theater. The detailed budget justification materials for the European Deterrence Initiative allow Congress to track these efforts over time, assess their progress, and make adjustments when necessary.
The Pacific Deterrence Initiative would serve the same purpose, allowing Congress and the Pentagon to view the defense budget through a regional warfighting lens while increasing the visibility of options to advance U.S. priorities in the Indo-Pacific.
Second, the Pacific Deterrence Initiative will focus resources on key capability gaps to ensure U.S. forces have everything they need to compete, fight, and win in the Indo-Pacific. The current budget process has been heavily tilted towards investments in modernization and readiness. Both are absolutely necessary, but ultimately insufficient on their own to achieve the goals of the National Defense Strategy.
In particular, the Pentagon’s investments in modern platforms have not been sufficiently matched by investments in the joint and enabling capabilities those platforms require, especially as envisioned by new operational concepts. Posture and logistics remain serious weak spots for credible American deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region, a major point of emphasis in the National Defense Strategy, as well as a recent assessment submitted to Congress by the commander of Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Phil Davidson.
Investments in theater missile defense, expeditionary airfield and port infrastructure, fuel and munitions storage, and other areas will be key to America’s future force posture in the Indo-Pacific. As one example, it doesn’t matter how many F-35s the military buys if very few are stationed in the region, their primary bases have little defense against Chinese missiles, they don’t have secondary airfields to operate from, they can’t access prepositioned stocks of fuel and munitions, or they can’t be repaired in theater and get back in the fight when it counts. The Pacific Deterrence Initiative will incentivize increased focus on posture and logistics, and help measure whether these requirements are being matched with resources.
More broadly, we hope that the Pacific Deterrence Initiative will help reorient the Pentagon’s approach to planning and budgeting. The United States needs to shift the balance from the current focus on platforms and programs toward the specific missions its warfighters may be called upon to perform. A mission-oriented approach will bring more attention to the joint and enabling capabilities that are essential to their success.
Third, the Pacific Deterrence Initiative will reassure allies and partners of America’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region. We hear over and over again from foreign counterparts that they are hedging their bets for the future because they don’t know if they can count on the United States. Congress took a major step forward with the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, which clearly outlined U.S. policy and interests in the region on security, economics, and human rights and boosted resources for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The Pacific Deterrence Initiative will be a complementary effort focused on the Department of Defense to demonstrate that America’s commitment to the region is bipartisan and enduring. By increasing security assistance resources dedicated to the Indo-Pacific, the Pacific Deterrence Initiative will help U.S. allies and partners build the capabilities they need to protect their sovereignty. And the initiative will assure U.S. allies and partners that they will not face the threat of Chinese coercion or aggression alone.
Fourth, and finally, the Pacific Deterrence Initiative will help deter Chinese aggression by strengthening the credibility of American deterrence. The initiative will focus resources on efforts to convince the Chinese Communist Party that there is no quick, easy, or cheap victory to be had against the American military. A well-distributed posture will complicate Chinese targeting of U.S. forces and infrastructure. More capable missile defenses at American bases will make them more difficult and costly to strike. Greater numbers of combat-credible U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific will make it harder for China to seize and maintain the advantage early in a conflict. More resilient logistics will make it harder to take U.S. forces out of the fight or delay reinforcements. New land-based, long-range strike capabilities will provide a new source of resilient and survivable U.S. power projection. The Pacific Deterrence Initiative will focus resources on these efforts and others with the aim of injecting uncertainty and risk into Beijing’s calculus, leaving just one conclusion: “Not today. You, militarily, cannot win it, so don’t even try it.”
The Pacific Deterrence Initiative is Only a First Step
The Pacific Deterrence Initiative will not be a panacea. It will not solve every military problem America faces in the Indo-Pacific, let alone the numerous non-military challenges the United States faces there. It is clear that China presents a challenge that requires a comprehensive response that includes a focus on economic security, international development, diplomacy, human rights and democratic norms, and multilateral cooperation. Moreover, while the Pacific Deterrence Initiative is a regionally-focused initiative, we recognize that the challenge from China is global in scale. But it is an essential step to reorganize U.S. thinking and resources around the key priorities for the joint force, and restore the credibility of American deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. The Pacific Deterrence Initiative will help ensure that America’s adversaries know that whether it’s today or tomorrow, there will never be a good day to test America’s military.
Jim Inhofe is a U.S. senator from Oklahoma and is the chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.
Jack Reed is a U.S. senator from Rhode Island and is the ranking member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.