Following plans outlined by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) has identified US$3.6 billion to support the development of what will become the Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative.
For the first time in nearly a century, two great powers stare across the vast expanse of the Pacific, the incumbent heavyweight champion, the US, tired and battle-weary from decades of conflict in the Middle East is being circled by the upstart, China, seeking to shake off the last vestiges of the “century of humiliation” and ascend to its position as a world leader.
Further compounding the US position is its broader global responsibilities, maintaining tactical and strategic deterrence in Europe against potential Russian aggression, the economic impact of COVID-19 and simmering societal challenges are combining to erode US resolve and capability at a time when traditional allies including Australia are looking to Washington for certainty.
Nevertheless, US President Donald Trump has sought to counter the rise of China by providing an unprecedented level of funding to the US Armed Forces, with a focus on expanding the modernisation and replacement schedule of Cold War-era legacy platforms in favour of fifth-generation air, land, sea and multi-domain capabilities supported by an expected budget of US$738 billion for FY2020, with US$740.5 billion expected for FY2021.
While the US Senate Armed Services Committee recently handed down its comprehensive summary of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which focuses on solidifying the priorities established in the FY2020 budget, namely, America's focus clearly aimed at reaffirming its position as the premier global superpower.
The SASC summary of the 2021 NDAA seeks to build on growing concerns about great power competition, stating: "Two years ago, the National Defense Strategy (NDS) outlined our nation’s pre-eminent challenge: strategic competition with authoritarian adversaries that stand firmly against our shared American values of freedom, democracy, and peace – namely, China and Russia.
"These adversaries seek to shift the global order in their favour, at our expense. In pursuit of this goal, these nations have increased military and economic aggression, worked to develop advanced technologies, expanded their influence around the world, and undermined our own influence."
Consensus, but a few options
Now, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) has echoed the sentiments of the SASC and the development of a Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative to emphasise the 'strategic competition' with Russia and China, particularly as both these great powers continue to consolidate their positions as anathema to the post-Second World War economic, political and strategic order.
As part of this growing bipartisan push, HASC chairman Adam Smith has outlined his own US$3.6 billion plan, titled the 'Indo-Pacific Reassurance Initiative' plan, as part of this, a committee told US-based DefenseNews: "Our goal in this was to send a signal to our partners and allies that we have an enduring commitment to the region and that collectively we want to help address the full spectrum of security threats that our partners and allies in the region face."
While the consensus is that more needs to be done by the US to counter the mounting challenge of China, identified by Defense Secretary Mark Esper as America's "top adversary" – there appears to be a difference of opinion as how to best establish and implement an 'Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative' concept.
Each of the respective plans is based on the original 'European Deterrence Initiative', which was established in the aftermath of Russia's pseudo-invasion of the Crimea in 2014, something that has drawn the attention of Randall Schriver, the Pentagon's former top Pacific policy official, seeing similarities between Crimea and the rising challenge of China in the Indo-Pacific.
The HASC ranking Republican representative, Mac Thornberry, identified a variant of the Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative that earmarks US$6 billion – all of which is planned for FY2021 – which specifically focuses on rolling out air and missile defence systems and identifying critical military infrastructure development in key partner nations, especially hardened infrastructure.
Supporting the debate, Indo-Pacific Command provided Congress with a plan for a US$20 billion worth of expenditure out to FY2026 so that America's largest combatant command is capable of fulfilling the mission identified in the National Defense Strategy and as head of INDOPACOM Admiral Phil Davidson describes: "Regain the Advantage".
Regain America's advantage
"Regain the Advantage is designed to persuade potential adversaries that any pre-emptive military action will be extremely costly and likely fail by projecting credible combat power at the time of crisis, and provides the President and Secretary of Defense with several flexible deterrent options to include full OPLAN [operation plan] execution, if it becomes necessary," ADM Davidson is quoted by DefenseNews.
The 2021 NDAA, released by the SASC, states, "The best way to protect US security and prosperity in Asia is to maintain a credible balance of military power but, after years of underfunding, America's ability to do so is at risk."
A critical component of the approved NDAA includes plans for the US Air Force to establish a new F-35A Joint Strike Fighter operating facility in the Indo-Pacific "quickly to posture ready forces in our priority arena", the committee states.
This was expanded upon by committee chairman, senator Jim Inhofe, who articulated the growing need for more F-35s in the Indo-Pacific, stating:
"It doesn't matter how many F-35s the military buys if very few are stationed in the region, their primary bases have little defence 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 theatre and get back in the fight when it counts.
"The Pacific Deterrence Initiative will incentivise increased focus on posture and logistics, and help measure whether these requirements are being matched with resources."
While the SASC submission for the NDAA and the Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative allocates additional funding to support the broad range of platform acquisition, modernisation and infrastructure developments, the HASC fails to provide additional funding.
This is something the committee aide identifies, stating, "So there’ll be some differences to work out as we go through this, but we think there’s a bipartisan consensus to try to get it done."
Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically.
Despite the nation’s virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
However, as events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?
Further complicating the nation’s calculations is the declining diversity of the national economy, the ever-present challenge of climate change impacting droughts, bushfires and floods, Australia’s energy security and the infrastructure needed to ensure national resilience.