Admiral Philip Davidson, Chief of the US Indo-Pacific Command, has requested the deployment of the Aegis Ashore system to Guam by 2026 as part of the bipartisan-backed 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."
Aegis Ashore, regaining America's advantage and protecting forward deployed capabilities
Both the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) have echoed the development and introduction of an 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 aide 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 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".
As part of the $20 billion associated with the proposed Pacific Deterrence Initiative, ADM Davidson has made a US$1.67 billion request of six years to establish a persistent, integrated 360-degree air-and-missile defence capability, with one platform in mind: the highly contentious Aegis Ashore.
ADM Davidson's request as part of a unclassified report stated, "The backbone of Homeland Defense System Guam would be the Baseline 10 Aegis Ashore system.
"The reason I’m a key advocate for that is, first, it is technology that is available to us now and could be delivered by 2026, when I believe that the threat will require us to have a much more robust capability than the combination of THAAD [the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defence system], which is deployed there now, and an Aegis ship in response can provide."
Expanding interoperability and multi-domain operations
ADM Davidson also focused his efforts on promoting and enhancing allied interoperability – with two key focuses on Japan and Australia two key US allies currently undergoing an extensive period of modernisation and capability expansion.
A core focus of this for ADM Davidson is maximising the training and test ranges in Alaska, California, Nevada, Hawaii, Guam and the combined test space around Japan and Australia to develop and test new weapons systems and concepts maximising fifth-generation capabilities, namely key platforms like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and integrated air and missile defence platforms.
ADM Davidson explained, "[When talking] about long-range precision fires, the fires from the sea, from the air, from the land, you need a wider network of ranges.
"And by the way, that network of ranges has got to be able to simulate, you know, a higher capacity and capability of potential opposing forces to you. And then allow you to space the geography, and the networks to exercise and all that going forward," ADM Davidson said.
Australia is defined by its economic and strategic relationships with the Indo-Pacific and the access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the 21st century’s era of great power competition and global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s “great game”.
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.
Australia is consistently told that as a nation we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the longstanding strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry – but what if it didn’t have to be that way?
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation’s approach to our regional partners.