“The president proposes, the Congress disposes,” says the old adage. Many details of the Biden administration’s first defense budget request remain forthcoming. But it’s already clear that Congress should dispose of the Pentagon’s request for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative in the trash bin. Legislators will have to rebuild PDI from scratch, or else risk the initiative slipping into irrelevance through botched implementation by the Pentagon.
Congress established PDI in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2021 to address two key problems. The first was budget transparency.
The Pentagon’s budget isn’t aligned to specific theaters or threats — a significant obstacle for congressional oversight. PDI was meant to provide a consolidated budget display that would identify the Pentagon’s key efforts for enhancing deterrence in the Indo-Pacific and enable Congress to track those efforts over time, assess their efficacy and adjust resources accordingly.
The second problem was resource allocation. The Pentagon has been investing heavily in a variety of programs to maintain America’s military advantage over China. But those investments tend to be heavily weighted toward platform-centric procurement as well as research and development — broadly applicable across multiple theaters and realized over the long term. Congress intended PDI to rebalance the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific investments by elevating the priority of joint and enabling capabilities; tightening the focus on Indo-Pacific theater posture and logistics, particularly west of the international date line; and seizing on investment opportunities to enhance credible deterrence against China in the short and medium term.
The Pentagon’s PDI request reflects a deliberate choice to ignore the bipartisan and bicameral intent of Congress. That’s why the top Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services committees blasted the Pentagon in a statement that said it had “entirely missed the point” of PDI.
Congress established PDI to improve budget transparency and oversight. The Pentagon’s PDI request does the opposite by omitting investments that would fit well within PDI, while including those with tenuous connection to the purposes set out by Congress in legislation.
The budget request includes more than $1 billion in infrastructure investments in Guam, Japan and Australia. None of that was included in PDI. Likewise, the Pentagon excluded Indo-Pacific security assistance funds, leaving a pitiful $500,000 for “strengthening alliances and partnerships” in the initiative. Meanwhile, nearly all proposed funds for PDI went to procurement or R&D programs that Congress made clear were not the focus of the initiative.
Congress established PDI to better match the Pentagon’s investments in platforms with the joint and enabling capabilities they require, especially posture and logistics. But the Pentagon’s PDI request is essentially a “Platform Deterrence Initiative.”
Together, funding for one destroyer, one fleet oiler and three programs related to the F-35 fighter jet account for nearly three quarters of PDI. Just $23 million — less than 1 percent — of the PDI request is for “force design and posture,” arguably the initiative’s most important line of effort.
The F-35 funding is particularly striking given that the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., respectively, have specifically cited the aircraft as an example of an important platform that’s ultimately useless without the theater posture and logistics in place to support it.
Not everything about PDI is bad news. The Pentagon has finally decided to request funding for improved missile defenses at Guam, though just one-third of what U.S. Indo-Pacific Command requested in its Section 1251 independent assessment to Congress.
There’s also information still to come that’s relevant for PDI. It’s not yet clear how much of the $4.7 billion in FY22 requirements identified by the Section 1251 report were funded in the budget request. However, given the significant divergence on “force design and posture,” the budget request is likely to fall short of Section 1251 by at least $1 billion.
Congress should submerge the Pentagon’s PDI request in a punishing bath of red ink. As it drafts defense authorization and appropriations bills, Congress should remove, replace and redirect funds for PDI.
First, Congress should remove platform-centric investments from PDI. Shipbuilding and F-35 upgrades are important investments that should be funded elsewhere in the budget, not in PDI.
Second, Congress should replace the items removed from PDI with investments more directly tied to theater needs that are located elsewhere in the budget request. Military construction and security assistance funds, as well as requirements identified in the Section 1251 report, would be fitting replacements.
Third, Congress should redirect savings identified during its oversight of the budget request toward new investments in PDI, including items identified in INDOPACOM’s forthcoming unfunded requirements list.
PDI was the product of years of congressional oversight, building bipartisan consensus and legislative provisions. Congress must remain vigilant for years to come to ensure the Pentagon carries out PDI as intended.
Dustin Walker was a professional staff member on the Senate Armed Services Committee from 2015 to 2020. He also served as the lead adviser to Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., on the development of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative. The opinions reflected in this commentary are those of the author.