The U.S. military has advised the U.S. Congress that it needs new precision-strike, air missile defense, and other capabilities to counter China in the Indo-Pacific, a sign of deepening military competition between the two rival nations.
In an assessment submitted to Congress earlier this week, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command outlined a range of requirements for strengthening conventional deterrence in the region, according to reviews of the document by USNI News and Nikkei Asia and remarks Thursday by Adm. Philip Davidson, who leads U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
The assessment calls for “the fielding of an Integrated Joint Force with precision-strike networks” along the so-called first island chain — referring to missile strike capabilities — and integrated air missile defense in the second island chain, USNI News reported. The document also calls for “a distributed force posture that provides the ability to preserve stability, and if needed, dispense and sustain combat operations for extended periods.”
The first island chain is a term used to describe land features in the western Pacific stretching from Japan, to Taiwan, and through states lining the South China Sea like the Philippines and Indonesia. The second island chain extends further to the east, starting in Japan and running through Guam.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s assessment requests around $27 billion for what it calls the Pacific Deterrence Initiative through fiscal year 2027, including about $4.7 billion for fiscal year 2022, USNI News and Nikkei Asia reported.
Davidson warned that “the greatest danger the United States and our allies face in this region is the erosion of conventional deterrence vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China.”
“Absent a convincing deterrent, China will be emboldened to take action to supplant the established rules-based international order and the values represented in our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he said at an online event staged by the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
“We must be doing everything possible to deter conflict. Our number one job out here is to keep the peace, but we absolutely must be prepared to fight and win should competition turn to conflict,” Davidson added.
Davidson did not reveal the full details of the military’s assessment, but mentioned that the two island chains “offer the capacity to support crisis and contingency operations, such as establishing dispersal locations, airfield repair capabilities, mobile processing, and fuel storage.”
According to Eric Sayers, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said the U.S. needs to invest in “mobile, ground-based anti-ship missiles to help offset the strike power from air and maritime forces, complicate PLA (People’s Liberation Army) planning, and provide another flexible option to reassure allies.”
Military tensions in the region are running high, with both U.S. and Chinese forces having repeatedly carried out exercises and other maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea in recent months. The two powers have also been trading tough talk, with the U.S. challenging China over its sweeping territorial and maritime claims and assertive behavior, and China accusing the U.S. of meddling in regional affairs.
Earlier in February, for example, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman criticized U.S. carrier exercises in the South China Sea, saying that “the U.S. has frequently sent warships and aircraft to the South China Sea as a show of force, which is not conducive to regional stability and peace.”
Sayers told RFA that the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, or PDI, is a bipartisan U.S. congressional effort “to stimulate more time, energy, and resources from the Pentagon to address the conventional military challenges in the Pacific.”
In the most recent U.S. defense budget, Congress instructed the U.S. secretary of defense to establish the PDI “to carry out prioritized activities to enhance the United States deterrence and defense posture in the Indo-Pacific region, assure allies and partners, and increase capability and readiness in the Indo-Pacific region.”
The bills says the initiative should modernize and strengthen the presence of U.S. forces, improve logistics and maintenance capabilities, carry out joint force exercises and innovation, improve infrastructure to enhance responsiveness and resiliency, and “build the defense and security capabilities, capacity, and cooperation of allies and partners.”
Sayers noted that the Pentagon has invested more than $30 billion in Europe over the last eight years to bolster the U.S. military posture towards Russia. “We need to make similar investments to reverse the shifting military balance with China,” he said.
In recent decades, China has pursued an ambitious military modernization program, which Davidson described as making the military balance in the Indo-Pacific “more unfavorable” for the U.S.
And despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this modernization shows no signs of stopping. According to defense intelligence provider Jane’s, the Chinese government’s recent announcement that its defense budget is set to increase by 6.8 percent in 2021 reflects “China’s economic resilience to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.”