With US defence spending and materiel flowing into Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is essential that US policymakers do not overlook the looming security challenge in the Indo-Pacific.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its fifth month, US policymakers have firmly prioritised providing material and intelligence support to Ukrainian defenders.
Just weeks ago, the US Department of Defense dipped into its own weapon stockpiles to support Ukrainian independence – donating US$450 million in military equipment.
As reported in Defence Connect in later June, this commitment included:
- four High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems;
- 36,000 rounds of 105mm ammunition;
- 18 tactical vehicles to tow 155mm artillery;
- 1,200 grenade launchers;
- 2,000 machine guns;
- 18 coastal and riverine patrol boats; and
- spare parts and other related equipment.
This pledge took the total value of US security assistance for Ukraine to US$6.8 billion (AU$9.8 billion) since the Biden administration assumed office in January 2021.
Just days later, the US sent an additional US$400 million in US military stock. The 15th drawdown of arms according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
While such support proves essential for the defence of Ukraine, a US pivot to Europe cannot come at the expense of maintaining a military presence in the Indo-Pacific.
According to Dustin Walker, non-resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the US’ Pacific Deterrence Initiative is losing momentum against Chinese ambitions in the region – requiring more “effectively targeted” funding in the region as it is currently in Europe.
Particularly, the analyst argues that the US Congress’ Pacific Deterrence Initiative “did not provide dedicated funding like its European predecessor did, or as its advocates had originally intended”.
“Instead, the Pacific Deterrence Initiative was created as a ‘budget display’, a transparency measure meant to capture significant Indo-Pacific efforts across the defense budget and enable Congress ‘to track these efforts over time, assess their progress, and make adjustments when necessary’.”
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Though, Walker notes that the Pacific Deterrence Initiative has achieved some successes. Namely, it enabled policymakers to tailor the US’ defence budget to the needs of the Indo-Pacific – and achieved numerous material wins, including Guam’s missile defence.
Though it still falls short of the support given to Europe.
“As it considers fiscal year 2023 defense authorisation and appropriations bills, Congress should not merely add money to various accounts that compose the Pacific Deterrence Initiative for a single year,” Walker argues.
“Instead, it should transform the initiative into a dedicated appropriations account — one whose funding is separate from and in addition to the budgets of the military services, managed directly by the Office of the Secretary of Defense in consultation with US Indo-Pacific Command, and competitively allocated to the programs, projects, and activities that best advance joint requirements in the Indo-Pacific theater.”
This increase in government and military oversight will hopefully, according to the analyst, overcome some of the shortages facing the program.
Though, Walker observes that the Pacific Deterrence Initiative is in line for a $1 billion cut last year – with a 25 per cent budget cut (to US$4.4 billion) forecasted by 2027. Such cuts would leave the US unable to compete in the Indo-Pacific, which to date it has already struggled.
“No notable shifts of forces west of the international date line are funded. No major changes are evident in the scale or scope of security cooperation activities with regional allies and partners. And so on,” Walker noted.
Walker’s warnings come as the West oversees a substantial decline in naval capabilities.
“European naval forces suffered a dramatic downsizing in the past three decades. This decline is notably due to years of cuts in defence spending following the end of the Cold War. Amid these times of budgetary austerity, European countries decided to rebalance their armed forces at the expense of their navies as they engaged in major counterinsurgency operations after the 9/11 attacks,” note French diplomat in residence Pierre Morcos and Colin Wall, research associate with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at CSIS in War on the Rocks in February.
Such preference for counterinsurgency operations resulted in what the pair term as “sea blindness”, whereby European countries were willing to sacrifice their innovative and cutting-edge naval platforms, perceiving fewer uses for the expensive ships in the modern threat environment.
The result is a stark reduction in naval capabilities.
“Against this backdrop, European navies lost 32 per cent of their main surface combatants (frigates and destroyers) between 1999 and 2018. Collectively, Europeans had 197 large surface combatants and 129 submarines in 1990 but only 116 and 66, respectively in 2021,” the pair argue.
The realisation that Europe and Britain’s navies are simply unable to meet the operational requirements to maintain the international rules-based order came to a head in December 2021 with the UK Parliament’s Defence Committee publishing the curtly titled We’re going to need a bigger navy report.
In summary, the defence committee expects the operational demands on the Royal Navy to increase over coming years, not least amid increasing tensions in the Indo-Pacific. However, the report notes that moving the fleet from an Atlantic-centric theatre of operations to the Indo-Pacific is not simple from a maintenance, logistics or technological perspective. The litany of issues is listed below.
First, Professor Jonathan Caverley of the US Naval War College explained to the committee that “it is somewhat counterintuitive, but maritime territory has a terrain. There is really no substitute for being in the region. The water looks the same everywhere, but the Pacific works differently to the Atlantic”. Second, the UK does not have any home ports in the region to support the naval efforts. To ensure that the Royal Navy’s ships are able to dock at regional ports, the report “[requires] defence staff at UK embassies to be much more active”. Finally, the committee notes that the Navy has to ready for the changing capability landscape with the prevalence of grey-zone operations.
Such issues are not easy to overcome on a strained budget. These complexities, in no way unique to the Royal Navy over its European counterparts, would require the former naval powers to lift themselves up by the bootstraps to completely reinvigorate global networks, supply chains and technological prowess.
Worryingly, this trend has also been observed in the United States with a decline in the US’ quantitative naval advantage.
“While the United States had plans to build a 600-ship navy in the 1980s, the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act set a goal of 355 ships, although it is not yet clear whether the Biden administration embraces this goal,” Morcos and Wall explain.
It is evident that the US Department of Defense is in no way ignorant of these sobering statistics. Research published for the Congressional Research Service has already warned Congress that the US has forfeited quantitative superiority to the diverse Chinese navy.
“The PLAN is the largest navy in the world with a battle force of approximately 355 platforms, including major surface combatants, submarines, aircraft carriers, ocean-going amphibious ships, mine warfare ships and fleet auxiliaries,” a Congressional Research Service report warned the US Congress.
“This figure does not include 85 patrol combatants and craft that carry anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs). The PLAN’s overall battle force is expected to grow to 420 ships by 2025 and 460 ships by 2030. Much of this growth will be in major surface combatants.”
Interestingly, the report notes that accurate assessments of China’s naval capability are difficult to attain. While Western navies conduct robust debate about acquisition programs, all of which are publicly available knowledge, such public discussions of capability improvements do not happen in China.
While the US, Britain and Europe nevertheless maintain qualitative and quantitative advantages over emerging global threats, the speed at which the Chinese navy can scale their operational capabilities have closed this gap.
“Even though Europeans still have more large surface combatants than China, their fleet is ageing and overstretched while Beijing is building a modern navy at great speed: China already has one of the largest submarine fleets in the world and is building the equivalent of the French navy every four years,” Morcos and Wall argue.
Perhaps it is time to revisit Donald Rumsfeld’s adage, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”