America’s defence strategy in the Indo-Pacific is in the throes of an unprecedented crisis. Faced with an increasingly potent Chinese military, and suffering from budget dysfunction and nearly 20 years of continuous combat in the Middle East, the United States armed forces are no longer assured of their ability to single-handedly uphold a favourable balance of power in the region. Washington faces a misalignment between its strategic ends and available means. It needs to make hard strategic trade-offs, and its regional allies need to adopt a strategy of collective defence.
Here we unpack four key takeaways from our report, Averting Crisis: American Strategy, Military Spending and Collective Defence in the Indo-Pacific, recently released by the United States Studies Centre:
- America’s military is atrophying due to near-constant use over the past two decades and an outdated superpower mindset is limiting Washington’s ability to make the strategic choices required for success in the Indo-Pacific.
- China’s strategic position has strengthened to the point where it could now achieve a swift victory in key parts of the Western Pacific – such as contested territories along the First Island Chain – before the US can effectively mobilise a response.
- While America is working hard to address these issues, its defence budget and strategy are unlikely to be able to meet the challenge due to fiscal, political and internal constraints.
- America needs its allies to help: a regional strategy of collective defence is fast becoming necessary to hold the line against rising Chinese strength.
America’s military is atrophying due to near-constant use over the past two decades and an outdated superpower mindset is limiting Washington’s ability to make the strategic choices required for success in the Indo-Pacific.
The uncomfortable truth is that the US Joint Force is currently ill-prepared for the kind of high-intensity deterrence and warfighting tasks that would characterise a confrontation with China. This is due to:
Ongoing wars in the Middle East: twenty years of near-continuous combat in combination with budget instability has eroded the readiness of key elements of the US military. Military accidents have risen, aging equipment is being used beyond intended lifespans, and training has been cut.
Budget austerity and underinvestment in advanced military capabilities: the US defence budget has been subjected to nearly a decade of delayed and unpredictable funding. This has hindered the Pentagon’s ability to effectively plan over the long term.
The scale of America’s liberal order-building strategy: an outdated superpower mindset within Washington continues to limit America’s ability to scale back its expansive global commitments. It hasn’t set realistic strategic priorities – such as scaling back Middle Eastern engagements – in order to focus resources on maintaining a favourable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.
China’s strategic position has strengthened to the point where it could now achieve a swift victory in key parts of the Western Pacific – such as contested territories on the First Island Chain – before the US can effectively mobilise a response.
China has invested heavily in a formidable array of short and long-range precision missiles to create Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2/AD) zones over key areas of the Indo-Pacific. This poses a serious risk to US and allied aircraft carriers, ships, aircraft and military bases in the region.
China’s counter-intervention capabilities are stoking fears in allied defence circles: under the cover of these A2/AD bubbles, Beijing could launch a quick, limited war to seize politically or strategically valuable territories – such as features in the Ryukyu Islands archipelago or, in a worst-case scenario, Taiwan. Its aim would be to strike first and secure territory before the US and its allies could mobilise to respond.
Alarmingly, Beijing is now in a strong position to launch such a campaign: China could now render most American and allied military bases in the region inoperable under coordinated missile salvos. US reinforcements outside the range of China’s counter-intervention systems would take significant time to arrive and would first have to fight their way back into the highly contested region.
The outcome of such a conflict is not known: Although the US would probably — but not certainly — prevail in an extended war with China, escalation after an initial Chinese victory to re-establish the status-quo ante would be enormously costly and dangerous for Washington and its allies.
Herein lies the problem: America may ultimately wager that military intervention and escalation to liberate seized territory is too costly.
The strategic stakes could not be higher: if China pursues this strategy, it stands to reap not just the benefit of seizing territory, but of casting doubt on American security guarantees in the region. This could lead to the splintering of the US-led alliance network and jeopardise the Indo-Pacific strategic order.
While America is working hard to address these issues, its defence budget and strategy are unlikely to be able to meet the challenge due to fiscal, political, and internal constraints.
America’s 2018 National Defense Strategy seeks to address this crisis of strategic insolvency by tasking the Joint Force to prepare for one great power war rather than multiple smaller conflicts and urges the US military to prepare for great power competition in the Indo-Pacific.
But it’s not clear that the Pentagon will get the funds it requires: growing partisanship and ideological polarisation will continue to make consensus on federal spending priorities hard to achieve. If current trends persist with America’s growing deficits and public debt, a shrinking portion of the federal budget will be available for defence, constraining budget top lines into the future.
Every year it becomes more expensive to maintain the same sized military: above-inflation growth in key accounts within the defence budget — such as operations and maintenance — will leave the Pentagon with fewer resources to grow the military and acquire new weapons systems.
America needs its allies to help: a regional strategy of collective defence is fast becoming necessary to hold the line against rising Chinese strength
The US military’s predicament should be of grave concern to US allies and partners in the region.
This is not to say that the United States has become a paper tiger. The Pentagon still presides over the world’s most powerful — albeit overstretched — military. And it will continue to supply the central elements of any military counterweight to China in the region.
But its ability to single-handedly maintain a favourable balance of power faces mounting and ultimately insurmountable challenges.
Washington will require significant and ongoing support from its regional allies and partners to successfully deter Chinese adventurism and shore-up a stable strategic order in the Indo-Pacific.
To do this, US and allied policy makers need to urgently focus on:
- Pursuing capability aggregation and collective deterrence. Practically, this includes efforts to bolster interoperability for major warfighting and deterrence operations, reforming alliance co-ordination mechanisms, establishing new high-end joint military exercises (as well as expanding existing ones), and forming joint strategic workshops to work on new operational concepts.
- Rebalancing defence resources from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific region. This means winding back enduring deployments to the Middle East, ending the practice of using high-end assets like F-22s in counter-terrorism and stabilisation missions, and leveraging the interests and capabilities of US allies in Europe and the Middle East to shoulder greater burdens in this region.
- Acquiring and researching new capabilities. One immediate and significant way to do this would be the pursuit of advanced land-based sea and air denial capabilities and potentially long-range offensive strike systems. For an enduring advantage, allies should stand up joint research and development programs on technologies and capabilities focused on lowering the cost-capability curve; and dovetail these with the development of new operational concepts.
- Improving regional posture, infrastructure, and networked logistics. This should involve leveraging Australia’s “Goldilocks” geography wherein facilities on this continent are close enough to act as a regional staging post and logistics node for allied and partner forces, but far enough away from China to make it relatively difficult for Beijing to launch concentrated kinetic strikes on military facilities. Such efforts also require including increasing munition and fuel stockpiles.