Pentagon Faces Tense Fight Over Pacific Pivot

The Defense Department is in an internal tug of war over the practicality of putting more U.S. troops in the range of Chinese missiles.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
A U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer in Hong Kong
A U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer is anchored during a port visit in Hong Kong on Nov. 21, 2018. Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Defense is locked in a tense debate over whether to base American troops and high-end weapons within reach of newly capable Chinese missiles, multiple current and former officials with knowledge of the talks told Foreign Policy, a battle pitting the agency’s more risk-averse analytical wing against other parts of the Pentagon and Capitol Hill.

The battle has come to a head after the Pentagon’s budget loaded a fund that lawmakers designed last year to position more U.S. forces near China in the Western Pacific with research and development for destroyers, fighter jets, and submarines that could end up outside the region, prompting near-instantaneous anger from Congress, where many insist that the Pentagon isn’t abiding by the law.

“If you wanted to improve force posture west of the international dateline, it would be funded,” said one congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss budget deliberations.

The battle dates back to the Trump administration, which first called for forward-deployed U.S. troops to sit in the so-called first island chain that rings China in the Western Pacific, including Japan. The fight came to a head this spring as outgoing U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chief Adm. Phil Davidson began privately and publicly urging a buildup of American assets in Guam, including onshore Aegis missile defense batteries, in his final days as commander.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and top officials have indicated to Congress they were interested in moving more U.S. military forces into close quarters with China. But Davidson and parts of the Pentagon supporting the effort have been met with stern opposition from the agency’s budget analysts at the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, known as CAPE, and the Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment, an internal think tank that conducts long-term planning. Both offices hold a pessimistic view of the ability of the U.S. military to withstand attacks from China’s new generation of highly capable missile and rocket forces, sources familiar with the debate said. China has tested long-distance missiles that can knock out U.S. carriers and even hit Guam, but its ranged forces are still mostly untested in combat.

Capitol Hill is still struggling to understand the disconnect.

“DoD has produced a lot of products countering the rise of China, we expected this to be more robust than it is,” a senior House Republican aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing budget talks. “And we’ll be holding DoD to account for all these other briefings and strategy documents and how they’re reflected in this budget request. We’re very concerned that they are not reflected in this budget request.”

The United States has more than 70,000 troops in Japan and South Korea, including many grouped together at major installations, which has raised fears in Congress and policy circles that China could wipe out thousands of American forces in a single attack. One solution to that would be to disperse U.S. troops and platforms around the region, leaving them in place to respond to any threat from China—but equally or even more vulnerable to long-range attack. Sources said CAPE, which is focused on investing in hypersonic strike weapons, the B-21 bomber, and mobile platforms, has pushed for keeping American troops and assets outside of China’s range, in places like Hawaii, Alaska, and California, using nascent long-range firepower and stealth bombers capable of withstanding Chinese air defenses.

“They’re essentially saying that if something ever happened we’re going to hightail it out of the region, get the ships out, get the aircraft out beyond the second island chain, and we’re going to have all of these magic weapons and we’re going to gradually fire our way back in, because we can’t be inside,” a former Senate aide with knowledge of the debate said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss closed-door policy talks. “That’s an absolute fairy tale.”

The Pentagon insists it’s focusing on long-range precision weapons to provide a cost-effective means of deterring China. “By enabling power projection from standoff ranges, the risk to critical U.S. assets decreases while the defensive burden imposed on the enemy increases,” said Chris Sherwood, a Pentagon spokesman. “The President’s budget request balances long-range fires investments between proven solutions and higher-risk/high-payoff systems, such as hypersonic fires.” Sherwood added that U.S. forces will still need to be able to operate out of “a variety of locations” across the Asia-Pacific even with investments in long-range fires and bombers, and that the Defense Department’s ongoing review of U.S. global military posture is addressing many of Indopacom’s requests that it identified to Congress earlier this year.

That skepticism is fueling significant pushback on Capitol Hill. It began with a statement from House and Senate Republican leaders overseeing the Pentagon even before the Biden administration’s budget was unveiled last week. Then, on June 3, a group of 15 lawmakers led by Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher called for funding dozens of projects on Indopacom’s wish list that didn’t make the budget, including over-the-horizon radar, bases to disperse U.S. troops into the Pacific islands, and more than a billion dollars for firing ranges, exercises, and military assistance for American partners.

“USINDOPACOM has an urgent requirement for a more lethal, hardened, and dispersed American military posture in the Indo-Pacific region,” said the letter, sent to the leaders of the House Appropriations Panel’s defense subcommittee last week. “Resourcing this posture would reassure our allies and partners, while sending an unmistakable message to our adversaries in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Republicans in Congress and some former U.S. officials are frustrated by what they see as the Pentagon’s half-hearted support for ideas like adding more U.S. troop rotations, exercises, and forward-deployed F-35s, which are mostly based in U.S. territories. Those moves are meant to prevent China from taking any more territory in the region by keeping forces within the first island chain that can quickly respond to a crisis and a nearby force ready in the event the United States needs to respond to a military standoff within 24 to 72 hours. Davidson, who left Indopacom earlier this year, had “been out on a bit of an island” with little Pentagon support for his position, a former defense official said on condition of anonymity to speak candidly about internal policy disputes.

Other lawmakers, in contrast, are pushing back against the more ambitious deployment plans. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith in April called the 2018 National Defense Strategy where the idea of a more robust pivot began as “overly ambitious.” He said the United States is no longer the sole global superpower. “So we’re constantly chasing our tail, and unable to do what [the NDS] says we’re supposed to be able to do. That needs to get more realistic.”

But with Indopacom insistent it needs resources to respond to a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan or another military action in the region, opponents of CAPE and the Office of Net Assessment insist that they’re being too conservative in the near term. “This is a world that doesn’t exist yet,” a second former defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk about internal policy deliberations.

The Pacific Deterrence Initiative was created by the Republican staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee last year to prod U.S. military services that usually eye big-ticket assets with their budget dollars to begin rotating forces to Asia, the former Senate aide said. Since the Pentagon’s base budget is subject to caps enacted during the Obama years, the measure would put pressure on services to cut elsewhere and move forces to Asia.

In the last days of the Trump administration, top officials in the policy shop had hoped to split the difference, keeping a mix of military weight on both sides of the international date line. But the administration remained distracted by threats from Iran and elsewhere. And with the Defense Department ordering the USS Ronald Reagan—the only American carrier strike group in Asia—to sail out of Japan to cover the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, some fear that the pivot is once again pausing.

“You want to be inside so that you have forces there if and when the fight starts, as opposed to trying to fight your way back in,” said Heino Klinck, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia until January. “On the other hand, you want to have forces outside of the [Chinese military] strike envelope. That’s the dilemma.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch