Building Allied Interoperability in the Indo-Pacific Region: Discussion Paper 1

Command and Control

Executive Summary
The severity and complexity of the threats to the international order and to maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region, together with defense budget constraints that create additional challenges for America in meeting its global geopolitical objectives, demand deeper security collaboration between the United States and its most capable regional allies, Japan and Australia. This is becoming vital if the United States is to deter current and emergent threats, including from North Korea and China, but also to positively shape the regional environment. Integrating U.S., allied, and partner capabilities into networked security architectures predicated on aligned strategies, force postures, operating concepts, training, and logistics—delivered through shared defense capabilities, facilities, and other infrastructure, and jointly developed and acquired systems—is the most viable approach to shape the region and meet increasing threats to regional security and stability. This security collaboration is becoming increasingly urgent and now needs to move beyond broad statements of principle and intent.

The changing character of the operating environment in the Indo-Pacific region continues to compel the United States, Japan, and Australia to better coordinate their security policy planning and actively seek enhanced military interoperability and integration. At times, there will be scope to include other allies and partners, including South Korea, India, and in some instances China, in certain military exercises, activities, and operations. But Japan, Australia, and the United States must form the nucleus of a concerted effort to enhance allied interoperability if the positive effects of interoperability on the region are to be realized in a meaningful timeframe and an enduring manner.

This paper presents the case that an appropriate architecture for commanding and controlling U.S., Japanese, and Australian security forces in the Indo-Pacific in a combined manner is a vital step in building allied interoperability and, ultimately, is essential for a more effective, networked regional defense. Without an agreed, practiced, and robust command and control architecture, the United States and its allies are unlikely to establish a combined security presence that enables positive shaping of the region and deters potential threats to stability, rather than a presence that can conduct only less demanding missions such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and provides a false sense of reassurance.

A fit-for-purpose command and control architecture is required to enable the United States, Japan, and Australia to:

  • better receive and integrate force contributions and then coordinate those assigned security forces, promote unity of purpose, and enable unity of effort;

  • be better postured to manage, as a combined force, regional security challenges across the spectrum of likely threats, including more ambiguous “gray zone” threats through to possible high-intensity, multidimensional warfare; and

  • maintain allied cohesion in the face of environmental and potential adversary threats.
The paper argues that the three countries must ensure their enhanced trilateral interoperability and command and control architecture fits logically within the larger picture of a more inclusive and flexible regional security order. Ideally, enhancing the trilateral relationship should not be perceived solely as applying pressure on a specific country, such as China, but rather seen as facilitating cooperation by providing public goods and enabling stability and prosperity throughout the region. However, given China’s significant military build-up, harder-line diplomacy, and gray zone activities over recent years—not to mention President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power and forthright language about China’s military at the 2017 Party Congress—an approach based on “more of the same” by the three countries has little prospect of shaping regional stability, deterring contemporary and future threats, and responding effectively to emergent crises. Better integrated and interoperable air and maritime security capabilities among the allies, based on the foundation of a robust combined command and control architecture, can be a significant instrument in ensuring China has realistic expectations about the extent to which other countries will tolerate changes to the regional order.

Given the character of the operating environment and the inherent challenges to combined command and control in the Indo-Pacific region, the primary objective of an effective allied command and control architecture in the Indo-Pacific should be: to achieve a philosophy of command and procedures for control of combined security forces capable of successfully coordinating joint, combined, interagency security operations across the spectrum of conflict (humanitarian assistance/disaster relief through “gray zone” conflict to high-intensity lethal operations) and across multiple domains, potentially against a modern and capable adversary in a contested environment.

We recommend the three governments embark on a purposeful effort to develop enhanced combined command and control at the operational level among the United States, Australia, and Japan in three broad stages. The three stages provide a scalable suite of actions that allow for a graduated evolution of command and control depending on regional circumstances and political appetite. The duration of each stage, and the decision to transition between stages, will depend on mutually agreed measures of performance and effectiveness of the combined joint headquarters, as well as the exigencies of the operating environment and the extent of political agreement between the allies.

Stage 1 of an evolutionary approach will leverage existing interoperability efforts, practices, and routines but will also focus on creating the nucleus of a combined joint headquarters that builds allied interoperability through the command and control of combined exercises (bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral exercises). The objective during Stage 2 is to embed the nucleus of the combined joint headquarters into a select PACOM headquarters, to practice the headquarters consistently across the spectrum of conflict using the exercise schedule as the primary medium, but also to employ the headquarters frequently as the principal operational headquarters for Phase 0 / Phase 1 combined operations and patrols, and as the potential combined headquarters for other, higher-intensity operations. Stage 3 is the maturation of a standing combined headquarters, capable of commanding and controlling combined operations across the spectrum of conflict. Stage 3 does, of course, entail the largest cost in terms of resources and political commitment but would be the most effective response to a serious deterioration in the Indo-Pacific security environment and would provide the greatest shaping and deterrence effects.

Developing a more robust command and control architecture capable of executing combined operations to counter the likely range of threats to stability in the region needs to become a priority. Pursuing it will require difficult decisions by governments as well as challenging institutional, bureaucratic, and cultural norms. However, doing more of the same, with less, holds out the least prospect of responding effectively to emergent crises and maintaining regional stability.

Trent Scott

Former Military Fellow, Alliances and American Leadership Project