Despite the ongoing turmoil caused by the coronavirus, Indo-Pacific Command, the largest US combatant command, has outlined a $20 billion wish list to counter the rising challenges posed by an increasingly assertive Beijing.
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.
Meanwhile, in the Indian Ocean, these two titans continue to jockey for access and primacy over some of the most lucrative sea lines of communication (SLOC) and access to critical markets, strategic resources and of course prestige amid the slowly developing Cold War 2.0 transforming the global and regional balance of power and competition.
Naval power has always played a critical role in the way great powers interact – competitions to design the most powerful warships often characterising the great power competitions of the past.
Drawing on perhaps one of modern history's most powerful ironies, the naval arms race in the decades leading up to the outbreak of the First World War saw an unprecedented competition between the UK and German Empire, with much of the emphasis placed on Dreadnought battleships echoing a similar, albeit smaller, naval arms race gathering steam between the US and China.
Despite President Donald Trump's commitment to achieving a 355-ship fleet, capable of guaranteeing global maritime security, freedom of navigation and stability in the face of increased peer and near-peer competitors – the funding question remains an important one for consideration.
Indeed recently, Defense Secretary Mark Esper explained the importance of balancing readiness with force and platform modernisation to the Senate Armed Services Committee:
"This need to balance current readiness with modernisation is the department's central challenge and will require strong leadership, open and continuous dialogue with others, and the courage to make tough decisions."
In spite of these factors, the President has sought to capitalise on a surging US economy to pass yet another increase for the US defence budget – expected to see the Pentagon receiving US$738 billion for FY2020-21.
While the figure is less than the US$750 billion President Donald Trump called for earlier this year, the US$738 billion figure will still see a major ramp-up in the modernisation, recapitalisation and expansion of the US military at a time of increasing great power rivalry.
Recognising the increasing period of global and regional disruption and the great power competition between the US and China, America's largest combatant command, Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) is emerging as the front line in securing the US position.
Accordingly, US INDOPACOM has launched an immense lobbying effort, supported by Congress to secure what it believes it needs to maintain American primacy and the economic, political and strategic order much of the globe, including China built its wealth upon.
This US$20 billion ($33.35 billion) request aims to expand the qualitative and quantitative-edge enjoyed by the US and support the regional alliance frameworks, which head of INDOPACOM, Admiral Phil Davidson describes as "Regain the Advantage".
"Regain the Advantage is designed to persuade potential adversaries that any preemptive 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.
A new "Indo-Pacific Deterrence" fund
In order to achieve the "advantage" the Congress and INDOPACOM is pushing for a model, similar to the 'European Deterrence Initiative' – a specialised fund designed to provide critical funding for key projects, acquisition and developments designed to counter peer and near-peer adversaries, like Russia and in the case of an Indo-Pacific-focused fund, China.
The original 'European Deterrence Initiative' 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.
"When war broke out in Ukraine in 2014 the Department of Defense moved swiftly to invest billions in near-term enhancements in Europe to address growing military-operational shortfalls," Shriver articulated in an opinion piece recently.
"The European Reassurance Initiative, later renamed the European Deterrence Initiative, invested $22 billion since then in increased presence, exercises, prepositioning, infrastructure, and partner capacity efforts all focused on ensuring the US military and its NATO partners have the right capabilities in position to deter Russia.
"No similar initiative, or urgency, exists for the Indo-Pacific. The Department of Defense deserves credit for increased investments in new platforms as well as research and development that will pay dividends in the 2030s and beyond in the Indo-Pacific.
"But the operational dilemmas faced by Indo-Pacific Command demand urgent attention. In order to make American investments in advanced fighters, attack submarines, or breakthroughs in military technology meaningful (in other words, to deter or win a conflict), there must be urgent investment in runways, fuel and munitions storage, theater missile defences, and command and control architecture to enable US forces in a fight across the Pacific’s vast exterior lines."
Key focus points – Guam, force design, logistics and relationships
Drawing on similar examples established as part of the 'European Deterrence Initiative', the proposed Indo-Pacific variant focuses on key points to maximise the survivability, lethality and interoperability of INDOPACOM forces, and the key to this is the 'fortress of the Pacific': Guam.
ADM Davidson's primary focus is hardening Guam and establishing an integrated, persistent, 360-degree air and missile defence capability for the island to ensure the survivability of key units, platforms and munitions located at the island.
Explaining this, ADM Davidson said, "Ultimately, the steps we take must convince our adversaries they simply cannot achieve their objectives with force.
"This requires fielding an integrated Joint Force with precision-strike networks, particularly land-based anti-ship and anti-air capabilities along the First Island Chain; integrated air missile defense in the Second Island Chain; and an enhanced force posture that provides for dispersal, the ability to preserve regional stability, and if needed sustain combat operations.
"America’s day begins in Guam and is not only a location we must fight from, but we must also fight for – given future threats."
This US$1.86 billion ($3.09 billion) objective over six years is but a drop in the ocean for the planned expenditure ADM Davidson sees as essential to establishing the Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative.
Joint Force Lethality culminates in a US$5.85 billion ($9.7 billion) program to not only harden key infrastructure but equally expand the availability of key precision, long-range strike and stand-off munitions, including the Navy’s Maritime Strike Tomahawk and the Air Force’s JASSM-ER weapon, a high-frequency radar system based in Palau to detect air and surface targets and homeland defence for Hawaii.
ADM Davidson explains the importance of this, saying, "These networks are operationally decentralised and geographically dispersed along the archipelagos of the western Pacific to deter and defend, by reversing any anti-access and aerial-denial (A2/AD) capabilities intended to limit US freedom of action or access to vital waterways and airspace."
Meanwhile, Force Design expenditure totalling US$5.85 billion ($9.7 billion) seeks to decentralise the traditionally clustered nature of American force structure, in response to China's rapid development of long-range, stand-off and precision munitions.
ADM Davidson explains the importance of this, saying, "Forward-based, rotational joint forces are the most credible way to demonstrate US commitment and resolve to potential adversaries, while simultaneously assuring allies and partners."
A key component of this is the US$5.11 billion ($8.46 billion) expenditure in prepositioning forces, logistics and support infrastructure in a dispersed, hardened fashioned in order to ensure survivability of joint US forces deployed throughout the region.
Finally, allies and regional partners have long served as a key force multiplier for the US, both in the Indo-Pacific and more broadly around the world.
Recognising this, ADM Davidson explains, "Relationships represent important components of US national power beyond our nation’s economic and military strength. Throughout the region, discussions with foreign national leaders always lead back to the role US values play in shaping global behaviour. This is evident based on the network of alliances and partnerships built across the Indo-Pacific over the last 75 years."
Expanding on this, ADM Davidson adds, "The Joint Force lacks the capacity to integrate service recommended weapons and capabilities into a warfighting concept that deters the adversary and puts us in a position to win. This challenge can only be met by conducting a series of high-end, multi-domain exercises with a continuous campaign of joint experimentation."
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.