Posturing Through Partnership: Airpower Imperatives for the Indo-Pacific Gray Zone Published March 10, 2022 By Major Justin Nedolast, Major Alex Precella, Major Mike Redding Wild Blue Yonder -- Gray zone competition with China has rapidly become the number one threat to American interests in the Indo-Pacific, often dominating the strategic decisions of United States political and military leaders. To promote regional stability, prosperity, and trust, US military strategy aims to meet the clear political objectives of the Indo-Pacific: “respect for the rule of law, individual rights, and freedom of navigation and overflight.” Military strategic guidance directs the preservation of a rules-based international order through a credible military able to free the Indo-Pacific from coercion, illiberal values, and the impedance of sovereignty and free markets by way of open seas and airways. However, in the midst of this strategic scramble, space and cyber power came to monopolize dialog on gray zone imperatives. While these domains remain vital components of an integrated campaign to compete in the gray zone between peace and war, United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) cannot neglect the utility of airpower to ensure a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” United States Air Force airpower is well-suited to provide significant contributions to two USINDOPACOM focus areas: enhancing force posture and strengthening partners and allies. Airpower advances the appreciable capabilities of “combat-credible deterrence” by providing access to critical areas, sharing intelligence, posturing assets, preparing the environment, and conducting information operations to deescalate the risk of kinetic conflict, “win before fighting, and if necessary…fight and win.” To successfully compete in the gray zone with China and guarantee a free and open region, USINDOPACOM must manage the risk of escalation with Beijing while undertaking airpower imperatives that enhance the regional posture of the USAF and strengthen airpower capacity among Oceana, Southeast, and Southern Indo-Pacific partners and allies. Within Oceana, USINDOPACOM must employ airpower-focused defense initiatives such as expanding combined air forces training exercises and expeditionary airbase options to counter ongoing Chinese gray zone operations in the Freely Associated States (FAS). The three US protectorates which comprise the FAS—the Republic of Palau, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), and Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI)—recently received increased strategic focus after the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act funded an independent study to analyze heightened Chinese influence in the area. Geographically, these island nations span a region of the Pacific roughly equivalent in size to the continental US. These Compacts, as they are collectively referred to, provide governmental and economic assurances, but the main interest to USINDOPACOM is the indefinite US authority for their security and defense operations, denial of adversary access to the region, and defense of basing sites. China uses economic activities such as tourism, infrastructure funding, and inclusion through the Belt and Road Initiative to gain influence in the FAS. Additionally, with the traditional funding model between the US and FAS expiring between 2023 and 2024, China has expressed interest in supplementing future economic contributions. Moreover, as China-Taiwan tensions grow, Palau and RMI endure increasing Chinese pressure to renege their formal diplomatic recognition of Taipei in favor of Beijing. To relieve this pressure and counter Chinese influence operations in Oceana, the USAF must strengthen alliances through the expansion of combined exercises in the FAS and bolster force posture via dual-use military-civilian infrastructure spending in the region. To strengthen the airpower capacity of Oceanic allies, specifically Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, multinational wargames must routinely occur within FAS airspace to exploit the defense agreement between these independent nations and the US. As the FAS have no indigenous military forces, they solely rely on the US for defense and security. Title 3 Section 315 of the Compact of Free Association grants the US the authority to invite foreign militaries to use military facilities and areas in the FAS with proper governmental coordination for large force movements other than overflight or transit. Additionally, qualified FAS citizens may enter uniformed service in the US armed forces. Notably, the FSM provided the highest per capita influx of military members compared to any other US state or territory in 2009. Australia, New Zealand, and Japan maintain diplomatic presence within the FAS which could facilitate governmental approval of large force joint exercises, especially in Palau as it is geographically closest to China. Additionally, selecting these three nations to participate displays the dedication of the “Second Island Chain” partners in containing a rising China. The USAF routinely conducts independent training operations in the FAS, as demonstrated in 2020 when Guam-based F-22s received hot-pit refueling from a Yokota C-130J at an airfield in Palau. These operations must continue to include partner nations to the maximum extent possible, and Palau’s location between Japan, New Zealand, and Australia enables this imperative. Equally important to building partner capacity through training in the FAS is the necessary infrastructure to support large forces with minimal advanced notification from a multinational coalition. Airpower imperatives to improve infrastructure and force posture in the FAS center on expanded basing initiatives in the region. The 2020 Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI), approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee, backs nearly $6 billion in defense spending through 2022. One key priority of the PDI is to increase the resiliency of bases within range of Chinese surface-based weapons systems through the establishment of more auxiliary and expeditionary airfields. Understandably, the calculated dispersion of high-value assets, such as combat and mobility aircraft, is a significant military advantage. Coincidentally, a plethora of island chains give the FAS an expansive geographic footprint replete with austere locations ideal for establishing new airfields and housing USAF assets with minimal degradation to operational readiness. The USAF must expand airbases in the region to not only improve air forces posture, but also stimulate jobs and channel additional funds to the FAS to lessen the financial impact expected when the Compacts change from specific grants to Compact Trust Funds (CTF) in 2023 and 2024. Despite the CTF structure reducing the budget stimulation each nation receives, new airfields scattered throughout the islands will boost economic growth to remote locations thereby improving a vulnerability to Chinese monetary influence.  In addition to Oceana, airpower initiatives in the Southeast Indo-Pacific are fundamental to US success in the gray zone. USINDOPACOM imperatives in the Southeast Indo-Pacific must hinge on aviation foreign internal defense (AvFID), expanded aviation infrastructure, and preparation of the environment for conflict with China. China seeks to diminish US influence in Southeast Asia by coercing its neighbors through military buildup, infrastructure initiatives, and maritime militias. Such efforts have culminated in the South China Sea (SCS), where China’s aggression has led to political pushback from neighbors like Indonesia. Indonesia, the third-largest democracy in the world, positions itself both geographically and politically to compete with China in the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific. Chinese presence in the SCS encroaches upon Indonesia’s marine resources and leads to frequent skirmishes with Chinese militias. China’s border incursions have sowed discord with Indonesia as a long-term Chinese partner. By bullishly pursuing its revisionist policies, China has created ripe conditions for increased Indonesia-US interoperability toward expanded airpower access and placement. Air imperatives in Indonesia must build partner nation aviation capacity to expand interoperability and force posture in the region. The first imperative to build partner capacity in Indonesia is AvFID. The US shares Indonesia’s goal for a free and open Indo-Pacific under the US-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership, but Special Operations Forces (SOF) exchanges have been on hold since 1999. SOF interoperability builds trust and confidence in indigenous partners to resist foreign influence through AvFID. An AvFID imperative prepares the Indonesian Air Force to support maritime border security aimed at strengthening Indonesian sovereignty from China. China aims to employ a hybrid form of warfare in the gray zone that manifests in paramilitary incursions. Indonesia’s current participation in regional exercises, such as Cobra Gold in Thailand, is insufficient to counter China’s hybrid strategy. Restoring Indonesia-US SOF exchanges will create persistent relationships formed on expertise trading, joint combined exchange training, and securing support in the human domain. Current exchange programs for the F-16 and AH-64 must be expanded to include light fixed and rotary-wing aircraft for AvFID. USINDOPACOM must use its Title 10 Section 333 authorities to bolster Indonesian AvFID capability. A properly resourced and manned AvFID capability in Indonesia repels external influence through indirect effects on the maritime battlespace. Deterring Chinese aggression requires bold USINDOPACOM investments into partner nation aviation and infrastructure. The second imperative for enduring US posture in Indonesia is aviation infrastructure. Partner nation security cooperation opens pathways to expand Indonesian aviation infrastructure to posture assets for conflict. China seeks aggressive expansion of infrastructure to support long-range aviation operations and the US must do the same by expanding Indonesia’s aviation infrastructure. SOF is uniquely qualified to explore areas of collaboration with partners and create dialog to align regional interests. More specifically, augmenting AvFID efforts with Special Tactics (ST) teams allow the US to force posture small, autonomous, and distributed forces across Indonesia. Posturing ST imbeds civil engineers, landing zone surveyors, air-traffic control, and language specialists with partner forces to increase basing operations, distributed logistics, and self-sustaining options for AvFID. The presence of ST identifies potential airfields, highways, and terrain to be surveyed for future use in the competitive space. To build aviation infrastructure in Indonesia, USINDOPACOM must use its Contingency Construction Authority to increase its regional footprint in Indonesia. Investments increase Chinese risks during malign behavior by building credible partner military capability in pair with economic stability. Special Tactics force posturing to build partner aviation infrastructure creates opportunities for more robust SOF-centric relationships with Indonesia. The final imperative for competition in Indonesia is the operational preparation of the environment (OPE). Increased intelligence sharing, regional awareness, and partner communications are a by-product of interoperability. Counterterrorism operations against Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah violent extremists can renew SOF interoperability. Integrating AvFID and ST with a counterterrorism intelligence center culminates the Indonesia-US relationship. USINDOPACOM must include Indonesia in its efforts to establish fusion centers in the Indo-Pacific. Intelligence fusion centers offer a model for a forward command cell able to conduct battlefield management against both state and non-state actors. SOF presence at the crossing of real-time intelligence and political sensitivities allows OPE to preclude conflict. Operational preparation of the environment creates access for forces to position for follow on joint operations when China oversteps its bounds in the SCS. Fusion centers tap into the ability for SOF to conduct OPE and mission command at the forefront of the battlespace where situational awareness is highest. SOF actions to conduct OPE for the joint force before conflict include strategic sabotage and special reconnaissance into non-permissive environments. A range of SOF actions in the Southeast Indo-Pacific gray zone put China in the horns of a dilemma, flustering decision-making and holding high-value assets persistently at risk within its sphere of influence. While more conventional in nature, initiatives in the Southern Indo-Pacific can accomplish similar objectives. Air imperatives in the Southern Indo-Pacific must include the acceleration of interoperability improvements between the USAF and Indian Air Force (IAF) through increased combined airshows and liaison officer initiatives, and the pursuit of an air-focused Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with Sri Lanka to improve Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) regional posture. As with both Oceania and the Southeast Indo-Pacific, gray zone competition is intensifying in Southern Asia. India is the largest democracy in the Indo-Pacific, a nuclear power, and stands as a critical component to regional security because of its ongoing border dispute with China. Accordingly, the US struck a defense partnership with India in 2016, and since that time, the IAF and USAF have engaged in a sprint of initiatives aimed at reaching full interoperability. India’s neighbor, Sri Lanka, bears both the good fortune and heavy burden of its advantageous position at the junction of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Unfortunately, over the course of the last 15 years Sri Lanka has hemorrhaged one of its deep-water ports, and thereby a concerning portion of geostrategic value, to China at the hands of Beijing’s subversive economic tactics. The strategic context of both Sri Lanka and India presents key opportunities for airpower to advance US chances of gray zone success. One such opportunity within US-Indian relations is the IAF’s fifth-generation fighter capability void. The IAF needs an advanced fighter platform capable of meeting its national defense strategy objective of fighting a simultaneous, two-front (China and Pakistan) war. Additionally, India and USINDOPACOM maintain an objective of operationalizing the 2018 Communications, Compatibility, and Security Agreement (COMCASA), which facilitates shared cryptographic technology aimed at fast-tracking secure communications interoperability. One major vulnerability of the progress of this initiative is the plethora of European and Russian-made aircraft employed by the IAF. An IAF decision to fill its fifth-generation fighter gap with yet another non-American-made platform hampers the realization of the interoperability envisioned by COMCASA and other initiatives. The security concerns of integrating the F-35A into an IAF system comprised largely of Russian-made platforms makes it unlikely that the IAF can purchase the F-35A. But the F-21, an upgraded version of the Block 70 F-16, provides an opportunity to keep USAF-IAF interoperability growth in the express lane while simultaneously meeting most of the IAF’s needs., PACAF must ramp-up short-term efforts to continue to showcase the capability and versatility of the F-16 via airshows, training exercises, and other similar venues with the ultimate hope that these initiatives will support the IAF’s fulfillment of its fighter requirement with an American platform. This would relieve many potential security hurdles with data and information sharing and expedite the integration of IAF capabilities to the level of air-specific interoperability necessary to succeed in an Antiaccess/Area Denial environment. Another key component of IAF capacity-building is staff integration. The second gray zone imperative for the USAF with India lies in the need to exchange air force liaison officers between PACAF and IAF headquarters. US-India Ministerial Dialogues have outlined existent exchanges of naval liaisons between US Naval Forces Command Central and India’s Information Fusion Centre. This framework must expand to include the air component to increase planning interoperability, training opportunities, and the development of shared objectives. All interoperability initiatives take time, but the exchange of liaisons would serve as a relatively quick, yet significant, strategic message to the Indo-Pacific region on the strength of the USAF-IAF relationship. Aside from interoperability imperatives with the IAF, the USAF must also pursue improvements to regional force posture with nearby Sri Lanka. The USAF must enhance its regional force posture with an air-focused Sri Lankan LEMOA. The success of the existing Temporary Cargo Transition Initiative with Sri Lanka, which mainly provides replenishment of American naval vessels, serves as a potential springboard for the expansion of logistics support agreements between the USAF and Sri Lankan Air Force. While current agreements are restricted to the facilitation of logistics support for shared missions such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, a broader LEMOA including support for another common objective—regional security—would enable improvements to theater force posture. Such an agreement would ideally include conditions-based options to escalate basing, maintenance, and host-nation facility support for USAF aircraft and aircrew in response to continued Chinese infringements of maritime and territorial sovereignty in the region. This would provide air forces a more dispersed, redundant, and operationally-sound posture west of the International Date Line and bolster survivability of USINDOPACOM’s intratheater logistics framework. An air-specific LEMOA would complement the US’s navy-focused logistics arrangement with Sri Lanka while sending a strategic message to Beijing. However, as with any course of action there are associated risks. The airpower imperatives offered across Oceana, the Southeast, and the Southern Indo-Pacific are promising steps toward building security cooperation and enhancing force posture in the gray zone. However, while gray zone competition avoids the risks and costs of war, finding advantages within it incurs cumulative costs to finite resources and the risk of continual escalation. In this vein, the most concerning risk of airpower initiatives in the Indo-Pacific is escalation with China. To mitigate this concern, the US must message airpower imperatives accurately, promptly, and diplomatically to prevent escalation driven by uncertainty. Additionally, there is a risk that partners and allies will not reciprocate USINDOPACOM’s enthusiasm for the interoperability and force posture initiatives outlined above. In such cases, airpower professionals must avoid employing measures too quickly and revert to incremental advancements in each focus area acutely attuned to US grand strategy. In terms of scope, the proposed imperatives do not provide a comprehensive strategy incorporating all facets of the military instrument of power to compete in the gray zone. Instead, the imperatives presented are specific in application toward regionally strategic partners and allies providing context for broad operational concepts. The discussed imperatives are pragmatic initiatives to increase partner interoperability and bolster force posture to meet Chinese aggression eye-to-eye and curb the loss of America’s competitive edge in the Indo-Pacific. As part of an integrated campaign, airpower must continue to advance USINDOPACOM’s probability of success in the gray zone. By focusing on combined air forces training and airfield expansion efforts in the FAS, AvFID training, equipping, and intelligence sharing in Indonesia, and IAF platform improvements and air-logistics in Sri Lanka, the USAF can contribute to this end via the enhancement of regional partner strength and force posture. Undoubtedly, these initiatives carry sobering risks and costs. However, given China’s increasing threat to a free and open Indo-Pacific, the long-term stability of the region characterizes these investments as a necessary step toward a future that preserves the rules-based international order through combat-credible deterrence. With this prospective future in mind, USINDOPACOM’s prioritization of the airpower imperatives proposed above will ultimately yield an invaluable return-on-investment for the US, the Indo-Pacific, and the world. Major Dustin Nedolast (MA, ACSC; BS, USAFA) is an active duty Tactical Air Control Party Officer serving at the 505th Command and Control Wing, Detachment 1, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He is an airpower integration coach and trainer at the US Army's Mission Command Training Program. Major Alexander Precella (MA, ACSC; MS, Bellevue University; BS, Nebraska Wesleyan University) is an active duty T-1 and C-17 Instructor Pilot serving at the 618th Air Operations Center, Scott AFB, Illinois. He is a Deputy Branch Chief of the Intertheater Airlift Plans. Major Michael Redding (MA, ACSC; MS, Troy University; BA, Auburn University) is an active duty U-28 Weapons Evaluator Pilot currently enrolled as a student at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Maxwell AFB, AL. 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