- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2024

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The Pentagon is close to completing an assessment into setting up a congressionally mandated joint military force for the Pacific that lawmakers say is needed to prepare for war with China, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Congress this week.

The Washington Times disclosed in December that Congress was battling the Pentagon over a legal requirement to create the multi-service and multi-national task force.

During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, Mr. Austin was asked about the controversy and disclosed that a study is underway regarding its creation.

“Command and control is really important to me, important to all of us. And so what I’ve asked my team to do is look at this and do an assessment to make sure that we get it right and we understand the operational and cost issues associated with this,” Mr. Austin said in response to questions from Sen. Roger Wicker, the committee’s ranking member.

Mr. Wicker, Mississippi Republican, said Adm. John Aquilino, the outgoing commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, convinced Congress that a separate standing joint task force for future military operations is needed.

Asked when the assessment of the task force will be completed, Mr. Austin said the review will be done in “a couple of weeks.”

The defense secretary declined to say when the Indo-Pacific Command would begin forming the joint task force.

“Really depends on what their assessment is,” Mr. Austin said.

Mr. Wicker said in a statement on the visit by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida that the joint task force is needed for strengthening military command and control within the U.S.-Japan alliance.

“In order to achieve that benefit, the United States needs to establish a fully operational joint task force headquarters, as mandated by fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, along with subordinate joint task forces,” Mr. Wicker said, noting he plans to hold the Pentagon accountable for implementing the law.

Members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, added language to the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act that requires creating a joint task force headquarters for operations.

The fiscal 2024 defense act restricts funding for travel by the Pentagon until officials submit an implementation plan required on the earlier mandate for the joint force headquarters.

An Indo-Pacific command spokesman said in December that a smaller joint task force that was due to be completed is being set up called Joint Task Force-Micronesia on Guam that will meet the legal requirement contained in the NDAA.

Earlier this month, the Navy appointed Rear Adm. Greg Huffman to head Joint Task Force-Micronesia. The task force will focus on supporting operations around Guam, the Northern Marianas and the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau, the Navy said.

The joint task force is not focused on China. Instead, the force is devoted to homeland defense on Guam and security support to the other island states.

Critics in Congress said the Guam task force is a needed step for better military coordination. However, the two-star command falls short of the warfighting entity needed for better command and control of military forces headed by a four-star officer who can be ready for potential conflict with China.

Congress continues to press for the task force.

“They’ve been dragging their feet on this for years,” said a congressional source close to the debate who said the issue is not congressional micromanagement, which the military opposes, but needed oversight.

The legislation calls on Indo-Pacific Command to create a joint force headquarters as an “operational command” by October.

The law also requires the Pentagon to report to Congress on its plans for setting up the task force headquarters by June 2023.

That deadline was missed, congressional aides said.

Joint Task Forces are special military units that combine forces from the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force into a separate unit. In some cases, task forces include officers from foreign military services.

The controversy was disclosed in May 2023 in a report by the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party that called for the Pentagon to “fully implement” the task force mandate in a report. The task force is needed to deter China, the report said.

“In a crisis, critical time could be lost adjudicating which organization or senior leader is in charge of the day-to-day conduct of various coalition operations,” the committee report said. “This type of planning should be done in peacetime, ideally with the inclusion of personnel from key allies like Japan and Australia.”

The Biden administration is opposing the task force as undermining its policy, stated by senior administration officials including Mr. Austin, that war with China is neither imminent nor inevitable.

Rep. Michael Gallagher, chairman of the House Select Committee on the CCP, said in December that the Pentagon’s failure to meet the legal requirement is a concern.

“We need a permanent joint task force or joint force headquarters that is responsible for the operational employment of forces in the western Pacific,” he said. “It needs to be at the four-star level, and it needs to include military staff from key allies like Australia and Japan.”

Mr. Wicker has said the failure to create the task force in a timely manner is “bewildering” since Chinese President Xi Jinping recently stated that China will take over Taiwan’s island democracy.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, prior to joining the government, co-authored a report that called for setting up a joint military task force in Asia.

The Pacific Fleet, under Indo-Pacific Command, set up Joint Task Force 519 which operated from 1999 until it was disbanded in 2015.

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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