Sustaining the future of Indo-Pacific defense strategy

Hand out photo dated September 11, 2020 of Royal Australian Navy, Republic of Korea Navy, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, and United States Navy warships sail in formation during the Pacific Vanguard 2020 exercise. Pacific Vanguard serves as an opportunity to exercise and improve multinational interoperability at all levels; to improve tactical proficiency; and to adapt to ever changing regional challenges. Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) is underway conducting operations in support of security and stability in the Indo-Pacific while assigned to Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 15, the Navy’s largest forward-deployed DESRON and the U.S. 7th Fleet’s principal surface force. Photo by Lieutenant Junior Grade Samuel Hardgrove/US Navy via ABACAPRESS.COM
Editor's note:

The 2022 National Defense Strategy (NDS) should sustain the Indo-Pacific as the priority theater, says Lindsey Ford. To fully realize this prioritization, the drafters and implementers of the next NDS must close the gap between strategic ambition in the region and resources. This article was originally published by the Center for a New American Security.


The 2018 National Defense Strategy places the Indo-Pacific region at the heart of U.S. defense strategy, and the 2022 NDS should sustain this prioritization. The United States faces numerous security challenges, including Russian or North Korean military provocations, non-state extremism, and even non-traditional threats such as pandemic diseases and climate change, all of which the Department of Defense (DoD) may rightly be called on to address. Yet the core mission of the DoD must be to deter, and if necessary, respond to, military aggression that threatens the United States, its interests, and its allies. China’s growing military power, combined with its economic might, presents the most complex deterrence problem facing the United States, and should therefore be the DoD’s top priority.

However, the crafters and implementers of the next NDS must address a long-standing shortcoming: the failure to adequately match resources to strategic ambition in the region that is most important to long-term U.S. security and prosperity.

Like the Pentagon’s “rebalance” strategy that preceded it, the 2018 NDS has been plagued from the outset with questions about whether it has an adequate implementation plan—and, more specifically, the resources—to achieve its goals. The National Defense Strategy Commission, a bipartisan group of high-level defense experts, argued in 2018: “We believe that the NDS points the Department of Defense (DoD) and the country in the right direction, but it does not adequately explain how we should get there.” It added in a more pointed critique: “The Commission assesses unequivocally that the NDS is not adequately resourced… available resources are clearly insufficient to fulfill the strategy’s ambitious goals.”

The gap between Indo-Pacific budgets and U.S. strategy is a long-running problem. It is also one that has the potential to intensify over the next few years, just as it did following the 2008–9 recession. Republicans are already signaling a return to their deficit-busting theology, while the calls for a new doctrine of military restraint gain steam within the Democratic party. Without a clear plan to manage these dynamics, a new administration risks facing the same chaotic budget-cutting drills that plagued the DoD during the decade defined by the 2010 Budget Control Act. This would be a particularly damaging development. It would not only further undermine U.S. defense credibility with Asian allies, but also exacerbate China’s opportunistic provocations—a reality that I saw first-hand at the Pentagon while watching China’s march through the South China Sea in 2014.

The past few months have reinforced the need for a strong and credible U.S. defense strategy in the Indo-Pacific. U.S. strategy will only be credible if it is fiscally sustainable, and if a new administration has a plan to sustain this support even as the budget belt tightens. This can be accomplished, but it will require leaning into some necessary realignments in U.S. policy and operations that have thus far been avoided. As my former colleague Susanna Blume has argued, how DoD spends its budget is more important than the budget’s overall size. This paper outlines three primary areas that the drafters of the next NDS should address: investment, jointness, and alliances and partnerships.

Prioritizing Investment: Building a Force for the Indo-Pacific

There is widespread agreement among national security experts that the erosion of America’s military technological advantage has created a serious and growing conventional deterrence problem in the Indo-Pacific. There is also relatively uniform agreement that the deterrence problem has not just intensified, but has become more complex. The current NDS reflects this more multifaceted challenge, arguing that U.S. forces must be prepared to restore deterrence across multiple domains, which includes “bolstering partners against coercion.” The current NDS is right to acknowledge the need to restore deterrence against the full spectrum of potential aggression. China’s growing military capabilities pose a challenge in each of these domains. This presents a problem for U.S. defense leaders: In a world of competing priorities, where is the next defense dollar best spent?

A common view among defense leaders is that the most effective way to deter China is to credibly demonstrate the ability to prevail in a conventional conflict. From this viewpoint, the DoD needs to more narrowly focus its investments on core military missions in the Indo-Pacific. Achieving this goal in an era of constrained resources means prioritizing the sustainment of U.S. military technological advantage over China, developing new operational concepts, focusing joint training and exercising on high-end conflict, investing in a more resilient force posture, and preserving readiness by limiting certain kinds of steady state activity.

However, as former Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy has observed, “Effective deterrence does not depend just on Chinese leaders believing the United States has the capability to thwart any act of aggression; they must also believe it has the will to do so.” The same is true for U.S. allies. Successfully bolstering partners—a key element of U.S. deterrence—depends on providing credible signals of political will as much as on demonstrating U.S. capability.

This points to a fundamental question for U.S. defense strategy: In a theater in which a large-scale conventional war is possible, but less likely than competition below the level of armed conflict or short, limited hostilities, what is the right balance between deterring high-end conflict and countering coercion of U.S. allies? This is not to suggest that the United States should not and will not need to do both. But the investments and posture needed to deter conventional conflict and gray zone aggression are not necessarily aligned. For example, should DoD double down on investments in hypersonic weapons or next generation aviation? They help to ensure continued U.S. military technological superiority, but they are expensive and may not be necessary in a limited conflict. Or do increased U.S. presence operations and joint engagements with allies in the South China Sea provide greater relative value in deterring Chinese aggression? If so, this approach also has implications for force design, potentially requiring more smaller ships and ground forces.

Beyond the question of how to balance between competing priorities, there is a more fundamental question about what role the Defense Department should play in gray zone deterrence. This question has long been a point of contention when it comes to investments in the Indo-Pacific theater, where combatant command requests have often focused on “shaping” activities that emphasize a more active focus on “competition short of armed conflict.” The challenge is that these same initiatives often lack a clear through line to combat credibility and requirements, which drive Pentagon investment decisions. Some believe that managing competition below the level of armed conflict should be a key defense mission, given China’s clear preference for leaning on paramilitary and proxy forces to achieve its aims. Others argue that the military must focus on the aspect of the competition that only it can provide—the controlled application of violence to a political end—while leaving U.S. diplomatic and economic agencies in the lead for addressing gray zone threats.

DoD should remain primarily focused on deterring armed conflict by being prepared to fight and win, should it become necessary, and should invest accordingly. However, a narrow focus on technological innovation, power projection, and the capabilities needed once a conflict is already underway will be insufficient. While civilian agencies should be primarily responsible for competition below the level of armed conflict, DoD has a role to play in this space as well, and modest investments in terms of both forces and readiness are warranted. The space between the grey zone and conventional conflict may be fluid. As other experts in this series have argued, deterrence requires convincing both allies and adversaries alike that there are no quick wins to be had and that U.S. forces will be present from the outset of potential aggression. Going forward, DoD will need to think more creatively about the investments needed to facilitate sustainable and persistent allied operations throughout the region in advance of, not only during, a potential conflict.

Prioritizing Jointness: How the U.S. Military Trains and Fights

The Department will need to focus more seriously on increasing the services’ ability to operate jointly. This, of course, is not a new argument. But it is one that will take on greater urgency, given the operational challenges China presents. Although Department guidance has advocated greater jointness since its creation, progress toward this goal has been episodic and incomplete. Each of the services is in the process of designing new operating concepts—a welcome and needed development—but the long-awaited Joint Warfighting Concept that could tie these ideas together is still in progress. Meanwhile, service-specific priorities continue to drive the defense budget.

One advantage of the DoD’s approach to operational concept development thus far, which has been essentially to “let a thousand flowers bloom,” is that it has allowed for important conceptual innovations, many of which are particularly relevant in the Indo-Pacific region. The Air Force’s work on Joint All-Domain Command and Control is the glue that will hold together the joint force in a high-end war. The Army’s Pacific Pathways and Multi-Domain Taskforce provide new ways of making that service more relevant in a predominantly air and maritime theater. Similarly, new planning guidance from the Commandant of the Marine Corps is a bold step forward in thinking about integrated, expeditionary naval forces. But the problem is that each of these concepts “focuses on a different aspect of multidomain operations, and each has adopted different assumptions about war against a major power.”

Another consideration is that the Department will need to address the question of training. Put simply, the Indo-Pacific exercise program is no longer fit for its purpose. While U.S. forces conduct 90 named Indo-Pacific exercises each year, the existing program is heavily weighted toward either large and expensive flagship exercises—many of which contain outdated mission sets—or smaller bilateral engagements that provide little operational value for U.S. forces. Going forward, this will need to change. U.S. forces need to train more realistically in the types of complex scenarios they will face, ranging from the gray zone to high-end contingencies. They also need to train more frequently in the way U.S. forces would actually fight, which is jointly. Fortunately, the department has a funding stream designed just for this purpose: the Combatant Command Exercise and Engagement and Training Transformation, or CE2T2. However, adding additional exercise money will not address the more fundamental overhauls needed in the Pacific exercise program. Department leaders need to look across the joint program, as well as in individual service programs, to cull activities that no longer provide value. They need to focus on quality over quantity in training engagements.

At the same time, DoD leaders will need to be creative in building exercise plans that balance between the imperatives for joint exercises and combined exercises. U.S. allies and partners prize participation in combined exercises such as the Navy’s Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) or the Air Force’s Red Flag, and these engagements play an important political-military role in U.S. defense partnerships. While the Department should not ignore the value it receives from combined training engagements, they too should be recalibrated to provide greater operational utility. This could include designing more opportunities for combined high-end training, or pushing for a coalition approach to high-end experimentation and exercises. The Indo-Pacific Command’s new proposal for a Pacific Multi-Domain Training and Experimentation Capability, which would entail an integrated coalition network of virtual and live-fire training ranges, could provide a valuable step in this direction.

Prioritizing Alliances and Partnerships: Who Is on the Team?

Finally, the new NDS will need to tackle the question of collective defense. The U.S. alliance and partner network is the DoD’s single greatest competitive advantage vis-à-vis Beijing, and the central element of any Indo-Pacific strategy. Even though President Donald Trump’s approach to alliance “burden sharing” has been uniquely harmful, he is right that U.S. allies can do more. The United States and its allies have steadily enhanced alliance coordination and interoperability, but the Indo-Pacific region lacks the kind of integrated planning mechanisms and multinational defense structures that would make collective defense a more tangible reality.

Managing the risks of China’s rapid military modernization will require the United States and its allies to think much more seriously about how to integrate their capabilities and obtain advantages of scale over Beijing. This goal will be even more pressing in a post-coronavirus era, when not only U.S. defense budgets, but those of allies as well are likely to feel the sting of long-term recessionary pressures. The ambition sounds simple. In practice it will require much more focused efforts than previous administrations have made to coordinate and align strategic and operational planning, force design, and budget decisions.

A piece of this puzzle will be to encourage allies to enhance their own defense spending, but on average, this is an easier problem to manage in the Indo-Pacific context than in Europe. During the past few years, many U.S. allies and partners have increased defense spending and committed to new long-term investment plans. Japan, for example, has committed to annual increases in its defense budget for eight consecutive years. Similarly, Australia’s Defence Strategic Update commits $270 billion to that nation’s new military investments. The more challenging nut to crack will be shaping the contours of these plans, and working to create greater alignment among the force employment patterns and force structures of the United States and its allies.

The place to start might be force presence coordination that takes advantage of existing complementarities between allied militaries. The United States faces a serious numeric disadvantage vis-à-vis Beijing in maintaining a steady state surface presence in the South China Sea, but closing this gap with new U.S. surface assets would require additional force structure and further decrement to naval readiness in the region. Instead, the Defense Department could take further steps to more explicitly coordinate force presence with allies and partners including Japan, Australia, the UK, France, and even India, to maintain a higher tempo of like-minded surface operations. Similarly, the United States could leverage allied reconnaissance assets to help build a common maritime operating picture. The U.S. military has already conducted similar operations with Australia in the Middle East. It could leverage Japan’s very capable submarine fleet to further strengthen allied subsea advantages. Over time such operations could also explore multinational deployment models—for example, more regular integration of allied destroyers into the operations of U.S. carrier strike groups. The Department has already initiated similar conversations with the UK and France. It is past time to begin pursuing them with Indo-Pacific allies as well.

Beyond presence coordination, the more difficult but important conversations to begin should explore how to align allied force structure and investments. As China’s military capabilities continue to advance, the United States and its allies will increasingly need to look to the capacity of their combined forces, rather than making investment plans in isolation from one another. Shifting toward more coordinated planning and investment processes with U.S. allies is admittedly a long-term undertaking and necessitates careful navigation of domestic politics on all sides. It requires providing allies with deeper insights into U.S. planning, but also engaging in frank conversations about contingencies where U.S. and allied perspectives may not be fully aligned. Yet a failure to move in this direction speaks to the very credibility of U.S. alliances. If the United States and its allies cannot plan and invest around the presumption that they will not fight alone, we have all in a sense, already lost.


Defense leaders have been signaling for months that they expect the halcyon days of budget plus-ups to soon be a thing of the past. The prospect of a protracted post-COVID-19 recession will only accelerate and sharpen many difficult choices already on the horizon. The opening salvo in a looming defense debate arrived on May 19 in the form of a letter from nearly 30 House progressives to Democratic leaders, arguing that “America needs a coronavirus cure, not more war.” While there will not be a resolution to this debate until after the presidential elections, U.S. defense leaders need a plan for what a more constrained budget environment means for defense priorities. The future of U.S. defense strategy in the Indo-Pacific is among the most important issues to consider. The recommendations offered here represent a starting place for understanding the resourcing priorities necessary to fully realize the Indo-Pacific as the U.S. military’s priority theater.