The Pentagon’s first draft of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative has been dead on arrival since its submission to Congress in May. But with the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2022 headed to the president’s desk, Congress has rewritten the PDI and established a new baseline against which future Pentagon efforts to deter China will be measured.
Congress established the PDI last year for two basic reasons: to better understand what the Pentagon was spending in the Indo-Pacific region, and to change the composition of that spending.
Even the mind-numbing details of the Pentagon’s budget justification books provide minimal information about how its spending aligns to specific theaters, threats or missions. By pulling that information together in a consolidated budget display, PDI was meant to increase transparency, identify key Indo-Pacific investments, and enable Congress to track, assess and adjust those efforts over time.
Congress also expressed concern about a platform-centric approach to deterring China, one that overemphasized high-profile procurement as well as research and development programs while neglecting critical joint and enabling capabilities, especially distributed and resilient theater-based force posture and logistics. PDI was designed to be used — by Pentagon leaders as well as Congress — to change bureaucratic incentives and focus more resources on these fundamental capabilities.
But in its first attempt to craft PDI, the Pentagon floundered — doubling down on platform investments at the expense of joint and enabling capabilities. Funding for one destroyer, one fleet oiler and F-35 upgrades accounted for nearly three quarters of the initiative. Meanwhile, paltry sums were left for other key lines of effort, such as a pitiful $500,000 for “strengthening alliances and partnerships.” The request also puzzlingly omitted Indo-Pacific investments that would have better aligned to PDI’s objectives.
Congressional criticism was swift and bipartisan. Top Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services committees said the Pentagon had “entirely missed the point” of the PDI. Sen. Jack Reed, D.-R.I., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed concern with a “heavily platform-centric approach” to the PDI. In congressional testimony, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin acknowledged “perceived misalignments” and pledged to work with Congress to better conform with its intent.
In June, I argued that Congress should remove, replace and redirect funds for PDI. And that’s exactly what lawmakers have done in the NDAA.
Congress jettisoned platform-centric investments and replaced them with other funds from the budget request more consistent with the PDI’s objectives. For example, posture-related elements jumped from less than 1% of the initiative in the Pentagon’s request to over 25% in the NDAA. Congress also added approximately $500 million to address unfunded requirements in the Indo-Pacific. It’s critical that an eventual appropriations bill matches that increase.
Congress’ rewritten version of the PDI represents a major improvement. It removed spending that does not belong in the PDI. It refocused funding on joint and enabling capabilities primarily west of the international dateline. Congress also effectively targeted new spending on high-priority needs such as the Guam Defense System, the Pacific Multi-Domain Training and Experimentation Capability, and “planning and design” activities that will be used to develop shovel-ready military construction projects to advance a distributed and resilient theater force posture.
But funding is not necessarily the most important aspect of this year’s PDI. After all, while the PDI top line is $2 billion higher than the request, just one quarter of that increase is due to new spending. Moreover, some elements of the PDI reflect present realities more than future opportunities. For example, PDI infrastructure improvements remain focused on large, centralized bases on which the U.S. is dangerously reliant. The PDI’s “modernize and strengthen presence” line of effort mainly captures the cost of steady state presence.
However, as the saying goes, you can’t really know where you are going until you know where you have been. This is the critical contribution of PDI for fiscal 2022.
As lawmakers expressed in the NDAA conference report, this year’s PDI identified investments “that more accurately reflect a baseline from which to measure progress against the objectives” of the initiative. Going forward, Congress’ explicit intent is to “identify increases to these baseline activities … to form the basis for PDI authorizations and evaluate year-over-year trends.”
In other words, fiscal 2022 is just the beginning. Congress expects PDI to grow in future years above the baseline established in the NDAA.
The fiscal 2023 budget request will be a major test of whether the Pentagon can get with the program and make the necessary changes to carry out the congressional intent behind PDI. For its part, Congress must remain vigilant and prepared to step into the breach once more.
Dustin Walker is a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was a professional staff member on the Senate Armed Services Committee from 2015 to 2020, during which he 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.