US aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (left), amphibious assault ships USS Boxer and associated ships conducting operations on October 6, 2019 in the South China Sea. Photo Credit: AFP/ US Navy
The foundation of US conventional deterrence in the Indo-Pacific is crumbling. Through its ambitious military modernization program, the global balance of power is shifting in Beijing’s favor. Absent an effective deterrent, China will continue to ignore the rules-based international order, intimidate its neighbors, and undermine security in the Indo-Pacific.[i] Washington needs the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI), a targeted fund within the Department of Defense (DoD) budget, to effectively combat Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific.[ii] The PDI is far from perfect, but nonetheless worth pursuing as a sound first step in the US’ pivot to Asia.
Earlier this year, US Indo-Pacific Command submitted a “wish-list” to Congress of investments they need to preserve a free Indo-Pacific and keep pace with China.[iii] The request recommends that Congress allocate $4.7 billion for fiscal year (FY) 2022 and an additional $22.8 billion over the subsequent five years.[iv] These funds will primarily be used to upgrade land-based missile defense capabilities in Guam, develop and launch space-based radars, and improve training ranges and joint exercises with allies in the Pacific.
The Current PDI: A Half-Baked Solution
The current PDI is not sufficiently capable of addressing the threats Beijing poses to US interests in the region. Critics argue that the PDI is currently little more than a misleading budget gimmick; the FY22 PDI does not have any newly appropriated money, making it inadequate in preserving a free Indo-Pacific and addressing China’s imminent threat.[v] [vi] Meanwhile, other analysts say that the PDI is a half-hearted attempt to force budgetary and policymaking focus on the Indo-Pacific. In part, the nay-sayers are correct: the FY22 PDI is a half-baked solution at best. Regardless, the clock is ticking in the race against China. The U.S. needs a more robust PDI, and they need it now.
The FY22 PDI does have its limitations. For instance, it will do little to increase joint force lethality in the Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) theater for the next five years. It prioritizes the procurement of submarines, ships, fifth-generation aircraft, and artificial intelligence initiatives that will not reach the force soon enough to deter China in the short term.[vii] The current PDI does not devote enough resources toward military infrastructure construction west of the International Date Line, a necessary step for improving the forward posture of US military forces.
Improving the PDI for FY23
How can the PDI be improved next year? First, the U.S. must work towards enhancing the near term lethality of the US military forces in the theater. In order to effectively deter China, we must protect the readiness of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. Additionally, the PDI should focus on developing and deploying long-range cruise missiles, while simultaneously increasing the production and deployment of early warning systems, such as unmanned sensors and radar.
Second, the U.S. should consider upgrading existing infrastructure and establishing additional DoD installations in the INDOPACOM theater. The PDI should invest in modernizing ports and airfields to accommodate next generation platforms. Modernizing infrastructure will help support military readiness and operations. If the U.S. focuses solely on armament procurement without investing in supporting infrastructure, the PDI will not reach its full potential.
Specifically, an improved PDI will provide US bases in Guam with appropriate air and missile defense capabilities. Guam should be prioritized given Chinese conventional long-range precision strike capabilities. The current PDI addresses funding Guam’s air and missile defenses, but it should allocate more money toward improving military infrastructure on the island. In particular, funding the Aegis Ashore system will bolster Guam’s short- and intermediate-range ballistic missile defenses.[viii]
Lastly, the PDI needs to place a greater emphasis on allied integration. The PDI is not simply symbolic; it serves as an effort to reaffirm US security commitments to its allies and partners in the face of a rising China. The U.S. should devote more funding towards joint exercises like Cobra Gold, Balikatan, and Freedom Banner. The U.S. cannot succeed in the Indo-Pacific without our allies and partners like Japan, Thailand, Philippines, Australia, and South Korea.
Regarding the current PDI, the Biden administration is seeing the forest for the trees. To maximize the PDI’s potential, the DoD, Congress, and the Biden White House need to be in agreeance on its funding and implementation. The fund should still focus on key investments to support the US military in the Indo-Pacific, even though the defense budget is unlikely to increase and a long-term continuing resolution looms.[ix] While the FY22 PDI is far from perfect, it is necessary for the US’ pivot to Asia.
[i] Huizhong Wu, “China flies record 56 warplanes toward self-ruled Taiwan,” Washington Post, October 4, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/china-flies-record-52-planes-toward-self-ruled-taiwan/2021/10/04/a4ec1686-2514-11ec-8739-5cb6aba30a30_story.html
[ii] Office of the Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), “Pacific Deterrence Initiative,” May 2021, https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/FY2022/fy2022_Pacific_Deterrence_Initiative.pdf
[iii] Aron Mehta, “Davidson defends $27B price tag for Pacific fund,” Defense News, March 4 2021, https://www.defensenews.com/pentagon/2021/03/05/indopacom-head-defends-pacific-fund-pricetag/
[iv] Joe Gould, “Eyeing China, Indo-Pacific Command seeks $27 billion deterrence fund,” Defense News, March 1, 2021, https://www.defensenews.com/congress/2021/03/02/eyeing-china-indo-pacific-command-seeks-27-billion-deterrence-fund/
[v] Bryan Clark and Dan Patt, “Fix the Pacific Deterrence Fund – and the Deeper Problem It Reveals,” Defense One, June 23, 2021, https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2021/06/fix-pacific-deterrence-fundand-deeper-problem-it-reveals/174898/
[vi] Dustin Walker, Congress should rewrite the Pentagon’s deterrence budget request,” Defense News, June 2, 2021, https://www.defensenews.com/opinion/commentary/2021/06/02/congress-should-rewrite-the-pentagons-pacific-deterrence-budget-request/
[vii] Hung White, US Pacific Deterrence Initiative too little, too late to counter China,” East Asia Forum, May 10, 2021 https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2021/05/10/us-pacific-deterrence-initiative-too-little-too-late-to-counter-china/
[viii] Wyatt Olson, “Guam missile defense is No.1 priority in deterring China, INDOPACOM leader says, Stars and Stripes, March 5, 2021, https://www.stripes.com/theaters/asia_pacific/guam-missile-defense-is-no-1-priority-in-deterring-china-indopacom-leader-says-1.664515
[ix] Joe Gould, Megan Eckstein, and Jen Judson, “Here’s how the new continuing resolution will frustrate the Pentagon,” Defense News, October 1, 2021, https://www.defensenews.com/congress/2021/10/01/heres-how-the-new-continuing-resolution-will-frustrate-the-pentagon/