August 28, 2020 | Breaking Defense

Lessons for the Pacific From The European Deterrence Initiative

August 28, 2020 | Breaking Defense

Lessons for the Pacific From The European Deterrence Initiative

Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” While Franklin was certainly not thinking of national security policy, the United States would be wise to apply the principle to deterring aggression from Beijing.

Leaders of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees appear poised to do just that by establishing a Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) in the forthcoming fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The Pentagon should consider lessons from a similar effort in Europe, sparked when the U.S. failed to apply Franklin’s principle before Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea. Distracted elsewhere and confused regarding Putin’s intensions, Washington allowed the military deterrence of Moscow in eastern Europe to atrophy. Putin saw his opportunity and sprang into action.

Following Moscow’s aggression in Crimea and fighting in eastern Ukraine, the United States belatedly created the European Reassurance Initiative, later called the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI). According to testimony in February from Gen. Tod Wolters, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, EDI has increased “forward-stationed and rotational forces,” funded exercises and training, built partner capacity, and improved prepositioned stocks and vital military infrastructure.

EDI, Wolters says, has been “critical to our deterrence and posture successes.”

That is exactly what the United States must do without delay in the Indo-Pacific.

Some in the Pentagon are concerned that a PDI might reduce the Department of Defense’s flexibility, but it is past time to substantively align U.S. budgets and programs with rhetoric regarding the importance of the Pacific. As Rep. Mac Thornberry, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, has said: “It is time to put our money where our mouth is.”

To do that effectively in the Pacific, three lessons from Europe are particularly instructive. The first is: waste no time in getting started. Before Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine, Washington dithered and ignored warning signs. Russia’s 2008 invasion and occupation of large portions of Georgia, as well as subsequent military reforms, should have set off alarms.

The United States must not make the same mistake when it comes to the Chinese Communist Party’s activities in the Indo-Pacific.

The warning signs regarding the CCP are already manifest in Hong Kong, along the border with India, in the South China Sea, and in the seas and skies surrounding Taiwan. The top U.S. military officer in the Indo-Pacific has warned that the U.S. military balance of power with China continues to become “more unfavorable.”

Washington should not wait for Beijing to invade Taiwan or attack U.S. vessels in the South China Sea to get ready.

Washington also should not delay because building the kind of deterrence referenced by General Wolters takes time. Finite budgets and industry capacity contribute to protracted timelines when procuring necessary stocks of pre-positioned equipment.

Similarly, the need for defense cooperation agreement negotiations, host nation approvals, and contractor capacity extends the duration required to build necessary infrastructure. In the case of the EDI, only a handful of the more than 70 authorized EDI military construction projects have been completed since the program began in 2015. These frequent delays are exacerbated when military construction funds are diverted to other projects.

There is no reason to believe that PDI won’t take years as well. Washington should not expect that it can reverse decades of neglect in the Indo-Pacific with one or two annual appropriations.

That brings us to EDI’s second lesson for a similar effort in the Pacific.

Congress has authorized and funded EDI using the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. OCO was originally intended to fund short-term expenses associated with post-9/11 conflicts. But the continued use of OCO for major multi-year initiatives represents a ploy to bypass budget limits associated with the base budget. This approach comes at a cost in terms of program predictabilityprioritization, and assessment.

Largely stemming from OCO’s one-year term, versus the base budget’s five-year outlook, the abridged planning cycle curbs valuable program oversight performed by Congress, undercuts messaging to allies and adversaries, and hinders the Pentagon’s ability to measure progress as part of the regular planning, programming, budgeting, and execution (PPBE) process.

Admittedly, funding the PDI through the base budget will require Congress to actually establish priorities and pursue bipartisan consensus. That is exactly what is required to ensure the PDI’s long-term success.

A third lesson learned from EDI is the importance of investing in less glamorous but vital capabilities, those related to infrastructure and logistics. To deter additional Russian aggression in eastern Europe, the U.S. has used EDI to invest in airfields and other infrastructure necessary to transport and support combat forces. In his February testimony, Wolters suggested those critical investments have been essential in building credible U.S. deterrence.

That is exactly what the U.S. and its partners in the Indo-Pacific need to do to deter and defeat Beijing’s aggression. A recent report by Indo-Pacific Command emphasizes the role of infrastructure in “distributing forward-deployed forces across the breadth and depth of the battle space.” That will require investment in the first and second island chains to facilitate the survival, mobility, dispersal, and lethality of U.S. forces.

High profile weapons systems built in the districts and states of well-positioned members of Congress will always get the political support they need. But the PDI is crucial because it will ensure that the vital supporting infrastructure required in the Pacific also has the needed political support.

As Washington moves to create a PDI, there is much to learn from the experience in Europe. If Washington applies those lessons appropriately, Americans can finally reap the benefits of Franklin’s sage advice.

Bradley Bowman is senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Maj. Scott Adamson is a visiting military analyst. Views expressed or implied in this commentary are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Air Force or any other U.S. government agency. Follow Bradley on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman.


China Indo-Pacific Military and Political Power Russia U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy