A parade of senior defense leaders have argued in recent months that China is on the verge of invading Taiwan. They may be right. Xi Jinping, who was installed as permanent leader at the recent Communist Party Congress, may see the next few years as his best window to embrace Taiwan and cement his legacy. But the Pentagon doesn’t act like Taiwan is under attack, especially when it comes to command and control.
If a conflict were to break out across the Taiwan Strait in the next year or two, the US Indo-Pacific Command would have to scramble to mobilize forces and defend allies in the region—the military equivalent of assembling a pick-up squad to confront a well-prepared team. . Although the U.S. military has elaborate plans to respond to a Chinese invasion, it assumes the right warning at the right time and the availability of the right units. Both assumptions may be wrong, given China’s rapidly expanding capabilities and the overall erosion of US military readiness.
One way the Department of Defense has avoided going to war with pick-up teams is to establish joint task forces. These fill the void left by the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which created joint forces but did not provide a way to integrate and manage units from the various services in the field. One such task force was the US Pacific Fleet’s JTF-519, which spent a decade developing and evaluating responses to potential conflict against China and considering ways to better deter Chinese aggression.
JTF-519 was established in 2013 but its need continues. The new National Defense Strategy and Joint Warfighting Concept suggest that the US military can deter or defeat a Chinese aggressor by making decisions and executing faster and more effectively than adversaries. Given the Pentagon’s time and financial constraints, the concept could also be an extended maneuver to allow US forces to succeed against the numerically superior PLA in the event of a war in the next few years.
But the processes and systems needed for decision making may not be built. New command-and-control centers require time and practice to become effective. And establishing a headquarters as tensions rise could escalate the conflict by mistakenly suggesting that US and allied forces are preparing to act proactively.
JTF-519 was led by the Navy’s Pacific Fleet commander because the war with China was seen as primarily a maritime conflict. A decade later, the challenges and opportunities of joint warfare are greater. Recent wargames show that US forces can counter the Chinese threat, but only by seamlessly integrating actions across domains and services because the range and speed of action is greater than a single service component such as the US Pacific Fleet can execute.
Creating command-and-control structures and strike chains that span multiple domains will require sustained efforts by operators only in a fully joint setting, as DoD does: the combatant commanders theater. This illustrates the difficulties experienced by the DoD’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control initiative, which after three years of experimentation has only grown in variety of kill chains.
Section 1046 of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s National Defense Authorization Act would help the Pentagon regain its multi-domain momentum. The provision would establish a joint force headquarters within the Indo-Pacific Command to assess the command and control architecture and break the chains necessary for a future war with China through ongoing experiments, exercises and demonstrations.
Location and reporting chain is critical for the new headquarters. DoD’s military services and support agencies are encouraged to further institutional equity in their experimentation. A common joint forces headquarters in Washington will not keep pace with the increasing sophistication and specialization of threats around the world, nor will it reflect the nature of China as the DoD’s pacing challenge. Only the Indo-Pacific Command needs to deter and potentially fight China in the near term.
The new joint force headquarters will also provide a transition partner for some of the DoD’s highest-priority projects, which do not have a customer equipped to evaluate the product today. For example, JADC2 is being phased out because its top-down requirements and service-driven implementation will take decades to achieve a highly interoperable force. A joint force headquarters focused on addressing the China threat around Taiwan could allow JADC2 to focus on the most advantageous kill chain for conflicts in the coming year.
While its most important function is to prepare for combat, a permanent joint force headquarters can also help the DoD deter aggression. The new defense strategy is recognized as one of the three main lines of campaign, which periodically seeks to deter the enemy’s efforts and create associated advantages. Exercising command and control and demonstrating new kill chains are part of the mission, but the expertise and focus of the Joint Force Headquarters will also be necessary to develop and manage missions that will harm US operations, posture, and China’s plans, and the US and the US. Conduct engagements to support. relevant capacity.
Pentagon bureaucrats are sure to oppose the idea of a remote joint force headquarters leading the campaign and promoting priority efforts like JADC2. That was right during the 30 years of post-Cold War stability, when shifting capability development ties to the field would create custom solutions unsuited to other theaters. But the urgency of today’s China challenge—as described by DoD’s own leaders—demands a different approach. Unless the U.S. military mobilizes for campaigning and conflict in the Indo-Pacific today, it risks playing pick-up games against a larger and better-prepared home team.
Brian Clark is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of the Hudson Center for Defense Concepts and Technologies.