NDAA Proposals Address Joint Force Integration in Indo-Pacific

Amendments in a House version of the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would strengthen U.S. posture and resourcing at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

One proposal to create a new joint command in Hawaii or Guam comes amid questions as to whether INDOPACOM is doing enough on its own to improve joint force integration in the Pacific theater.

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) pushed for INDOPACOM initiatives to strengthen America’s posture toward China.

“This year’s NDAA learns from the failure of deterrence in Ukraine and moves with a sense of urgency to better resource America’s posture in the Indo-Pacific,” Gallagher said in a statement released after the House Armed Services Committee passed its version of the NDAA after midnight June 23.

The ranking member of the HASC subcommittee on military personnel also helped secure an extra $1 billion to “turbocharge urgently needed infrastructure and posture-related efforts” at the command, and he called for a study to review how a joint task force (JTF) or sub-unified command in Honolulu or Guam could strengthen command-and-control structures before a crisis erupts.

INDOPACOM is already slated for $6.1 billion in the NDAA as part of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI), which would do everything from build new infrastructure to increase the number of exercises and training events with partners and allies in the region. Hawaii and Guam would be major beneficiaries of the new funding.

“Guam and Hawaii provide the operational capability and logistical capacity to generate airpower for both contingency and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations,” a Pacific Air Forces spokesperson told Air Force Magazine in a written statement. “Their defensive posture will be significantly bolstered by the build-out plans.”

In an interview at PACAF headquarters at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, PACAF commander Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach told Air Force Magazine that the 2022 defense budget jumpstarted Air Force efforts to pre-position material and conduct agile combat employment (ACE) in the theater.

“The ‘22 budget provided for additional funds for ACE for construction that we needed that helps us to execute ACE and gives us airfields that are more capable and viable for conducting operations in the Pacific,” Wilsbach said.

“We need to stay the course to give us the capability to be able to deter, and if deterrence fails, to be able to prevail if conflict happens here in the Pacific,” he added. The PACAF commander added, however, that he needed the Army to step up and do its job to protect air assets and bases.

PDI military construction funds proposed in the fiscal 2023 budget include design and construction projects on the island of Timor and U.S. territories Wake Island and Tinian. The Tinian projects add capacity for airfield operations including refueling, takeoff, landing, and parking where no capacity currently exists.

Guam is already slated to host a future command-and-control center funded by the Missile Defense Agency that would benefit PACAF by creating an integrated air picture.

Gallagher’s proposed amendment calls on the INDOPACOM commander to study the creation of a joint task force or sub-unified command to better facilitate planning and execution of a contingency response should crisis arrive in the Indo-Pacific region.

Some current and former sub-unified commands are Alaskan Command under U.S. Northern Command, U.S. Forces Korea under INDOPACOM, and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, which ran the war there under U.S. Central Command.

Work Underway on Joint Force Integration

At the Hickam meeting, Wilsbach stressed his efforts to strengthen the Joint Force, something the NDAA amendment seeks to address should a JTF be created.

“The good news story is a lot is working,” Wilsbach said, describing a June 3 joint demonstration for INDOPACOM commander Adm. John C. Aquilino at PACAF’s 613th Air Operations Center (AOC). “We’re about as jointly integrated as I’ve ever seen, right now, every single day.”

While the Defense Department continues to develop technology to achieve joint all-domain command and control (JADC2), which would enable integration from all branches of the military, Wilsbach said the exercise at the AOC demonstrated that even with current technologies, the services are executing JADC2.

In the joint demonstration, air fires from the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps; surface-to-air fires from the Marine Corps and use of its radars and aircraft; and simulated surface-to-surface fires from the Army were employed together.

“We can integrate that all in time and space from the AOC,” Wilsbach said. “On a day-to-day basis, the operations are all very similar to that. They’re being integrated, and perhaps on a day-to-day basis, they’re not always a strike, or a simulated strike, but they could be.”

Retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, said standing up a JTF before a crisis erupts is a good idea, but that he is not convinced INDOPACOM is preparing for a joint fight in the Indo-Pacific.

“Is PACOM really serious about preparing for potential conflict with China in the South China Sea?” he posed. “And then if they are, where’s the evidence of a unified, truly joint approach in doing so?”

Deptula said problems he sees today existed two decades ago when he served at PACAF headquarters. One is a lack of a means for attacking moving ships in all weather. Another is sufficient munitions stocks to execute major regional conflict in the Indo-Pacific, but construction is underway in Guam to address the munitions storage shortfall. He also called for hardening of aircraft shelters in Guam. But instead, the Missile Defense Agency is working with the Army to create a 360-degree, multi-layered missile defense of Guam. Likewise, Deptula called for a plan for how the Army would provide air base defense and how it would travel with the Air Force to ACE locations at islands across the Pacific.

Deptula said all the service components would participate in a JTF, if stood up, but the key force would be air power. Whether a hypothetical JTF commander is an Air Force officer or a Navy officer would indicate whether INDOPACOM is “serious” or “stuck in the past,” he said. “To conquer the tyranny of distance of the Pacific, one needs to go 600 knots, not 20 knots—not to mention having the flexibility for rapid response, optimal survivability, lethality.”

“I’m pretty convinced that ‘Cruiser’ Wilsbach is on top of it, in my view,” Deptula said. “He’s very realistic and has a good grasp of the situation, but I can’t say that about the rest of the service components in the Pacific.”

INDOPACOM did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) international security fellow John Schaus agreed that the services are not thinking in a joint manner.

“None of the services spend enough time thinking about how they are going to contribute to a joint force in a joint fight to achieve national objectives,” Schaus told Air Force Magazine in a recent interview.

One way services practice joint integration is through exercises. But all too often, Schaus said, a service won’t participate unless the exercise meets their internal needs.

“Each of the services has requirements for training and proficiency. And if that exercise helps you, but it doesn’t help me, I don’t have an incentive to participate,” Schaus said. “That leaves each service less joint.”