August 25, 2020

U.S. Military Strategy in the Indo-Pacific


  • The 2018 National Defense Strategy commits the United States to maintaining a free Indo-Pacific region. 
  • The Indo-Pacific encompasses three nuclear states, four of the world’s largest militaries, more than half of the world’s population, and some of the greatest challenges to U.S. and global security, including China and North Korea.
  • Senate Republicans play a key role in ensuring the U.S. meets its commitments in the region. 

A key objective in the 2018 National Defense Strategy is to maintain “favorable regional balances of power” in several parts of the world, including the Indo-Pacific region. The Defense Department’s Indo-Pacific Command, known as INDOPACOM, plays an important role in the U.S. approach to the area. It is home to many national security challenges ranging from China to North Korea to ISIS affiliates. The U.S. military’s strategy to address these critical issues relies on keeping our military ready and maintaining partnerships in the region. Senate Republicans, through enacted legislation such as Senator Cory Gardner’s Asia Reassurance Initiative Act and Senator Jim Inhofe’s proposed Pacific Deterrence Initiative can ensure the U.S. meets its commitment to maintaining a free and open region.

INDOPACOM’s Area of Responsibility


A Three-Part Approach to the Region

The Indo-Pacific encompasses three nuclear states – China, North Korea, and India – four of the world’s largest militaries, and more than half of the world’s population. It is home to many challenges to the U.S., including Chinese-Russian military cooperation in the area, North Korea’s pursuit of advanced ballistic missile technology, and extremist groups such as ISIS affiliates.

By far the biggest challenge in the region is China. Increasingly, it has threatened trade security and the territory of U.S. allies in an attempt to become the dominate power in the region. It has wielded its economic and military power to coerce other countries in the region. It supports this campaign by constantly modernizing its military technology and conducting military operations close to U.S. allies.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper outlined the military’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific in three parts: preparedness; partnerships; and regional integration. The strategy aims to deter conflict and ensures U.S. military readiness in the area.


The U.S. military has been modernizing its strategies for how to fight in the Pacific. It also is investing in key technologies for the 21st century battlefield like 5G communications, artificial intelligence, conventional hypersonic weapons, and advanced combat systems. The Army is working to develop a new “long-range advanced precision fires” surface-to-surface missile system. The Air Force is developing new stealth technology like the B-21 to deploy in the region and new operating concepts like Agile Combat Employment, which will help planes to operate outside of large bases.


DOD is working with allies in the region to bolster their capabilities and reassure them that the U.S. is committed to their defense. The U.S. has conducted joint training exercises with other countries and has based troops in South Korea and Japan. Through Operation Pacific Eagle, the U.S. is assisting the Philippines in battling violent extremists. The military is working with the U.N. to enforce North Korea sanctions by monitoring and disrupting ship-to-ship transfers of illicit goods bound for North Korea. 

The Army is continuing Pacific Pathways exercises, a training deployment with allies started in 2014. Through this program, the Army has trained with allies in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, South Korea, Palau, the Philippines, Japan, and Thailand. The Army holds other exercises with allies, such as Defender Pacific, to prepare for potential humanitarian and combat operations.

The Air Force has sent strategic bombers to the region to provide reassurance and train with allies. It recently deployed three B-2 Spirit stealth bombers from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to the Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The Air Force and allies are also training in the U.S. through exercises like Red Flag-Alaska.

The Navy is conducting “freedom of navigation” operations throughout the area, which is home to many territorial water disputes, including one over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. In July, The Nimitz and Reagan Carrier Strike Forces conducted dual operations in the region to demonstrate U.S. capabilities and commitment. 

The Navy also holds training exercises with allies in the area, with the most prominent being the Rim of the Pacific Exercise. RIMPAC is the world’s largest international military exercise − 10 countries are participating this year.

The U.S. military also is increasing training and engagement with India. The Trump administration has highlighted India as a key player in the region, and in 2018 moved India into the same regional command as the Pacific countries. In 2019, the U.S. and India held the Tiger Triumph exercise with all of the Indian military branches.

Regional Integration

The U.S. military deals with the Indo-Pacific in largely bilateral terms through mutual defense treaties and training exercises. Secretary Esper has been clear that while bilateral cooperation helps to advance U.S. interests in the region, countries in the Indo-Pacific should pursue multilateral agreements focused on regional security.

Congressional actions in the region

Congress plays a key role in ensuring the U.S. military has what it needs to achieve the objectives laid out in the NDS. Congressional oversight helps the Pentagon correctly prioritize those resources. This duty is particularly vital to U.S. strategy in the Pacific. In 2018, the congressionally mandated National Defense Commission noted that lack of proper funding for the U.S. military could put our ability to win in the Pacific at risk.

Senate Republicans recognize the need to support this crucial mission. In 2018, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act led by Senator Cory Gardner, which President Trump signed into law. ARIA provided important authorizations to government agencies involved in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy and codified aspects of the U.S. approach to the region. DOD, in a 2019 report on its Indo-Pacific strategy, said of ARIA: “This legislation enshrines a generational whole-of-government policy framework that demonstrates U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

The fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act that passed the Senate in July includes a new Pacific Deterrence Initiative to refocus the Pentagon’s efforts west of the International Date Line. PDI improves upon the concept behind the European Deterrence Initiative, which re-routed more than $20 billion of defense funding to support commanders in the European theater. The new PDI aims to prioritize in the Pacific theater those same capabilities, which are often overlooked in DOD’s budgeting process.

The legislation requires DOD to provide Congress with budget information tied to the Pacific theater to help lawmakers measure progress toward NDS objectives. PDI focuses on investing in technologies and material that support the three main themes of U.S. military strategy in the region: a prepared joint force; partnerships with allies; and integration of the region’s military forces. The bill authorizes $1.4 billion in fiscal year 2021, approximately $1.2 billion of which was already spread across the DOD budget. It adds $188.6 million above the administration’s request for the Pacific, in large part based on the INDOPACOM commander’s assessment of high-risk items such as air and missile defense, communications infrastructure, and interoperability with allies. It also authorizes $5.5 billion in fiscal year 2022, to give the Pentagon a target for prioritizing its next budget.

PDI will help ensure that the military’s strategy in the region is properly funded and send a strong message that the U.S. is prepared to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Issue Tag: National Security