Adm. Samuel Paparo arrives for the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command change of command ceremony presided over by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III on Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam, May 3, 2024. During the ceremony, Adm. Samuel Paparo assumed command from Adm. John Aquilino, who retired with 40 years of service in the Navy. (DoD Photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jack Sanders)

Earlier this month, retired Army officer John D. Rosenberger wrote in Breaking Defense about the need for US Indo-Pacific Command to tackle the Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control (CJADC2) challenge in the Pacific. In this companion piece, Rosenberger raises concerns about the other half of the equation: a Standing Combined Joint Task Force positioned specifically for the China threat.

If Beijing wants to execute a first strike and seize Taiwan, the ideal time might be right now, when INDOPACOM has no Standing Combined Joint Task Force (SCJTF) trained, poised, and ready to immediately employ the combat power of its Component Commands to defeat the PLA’s effort. Should this occur, INDOPACOM chief Adm. Samuel Paparo would have to form an ad hoc operational CJTF that would take weeks to assemble and prepare for combat.

In other words, INDOPACOM has no means of orchestrating a synchronized Joint All Domain campaign to absorb the blow, then launch a devastating counter-offensive operation against the PLA — which has to be so effective it keeps China from considering the nuclear option. We stand postured to lose our first large-scale conventional battle against the PLA.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Paparo just took over at the command this month, and with a new commander should come a new way of doing business. Specifically, Paparo should look to create a permanent SCJTF, specifically postured for a China scenario.

Even Congress recognizes this imperative requirement. In the FY23 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Congress directed the SECDEF to create a fully equipped and persistent operational Joint Task Force within INDOPACOM. A year later, in the FY24 NDAA, Congress directed the SECDEF to send Congress his implementation plan to bring this Combined Joint Task Force to life.

Two years later, in testimony before Congress last month, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated, “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.” In non-Pentagon speak, we’re going to study it some more and kick the can down the street.

Granted, DoD has announced it is standing up a new operational Joint Task Force-Micronesia, under the command of a two-star admiral, with responsibility for the homeland defense of Guam, the US Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Pulau — our partner nations along the first island chain. While this may satisfy political interests to secure basing rights where we need them, this is not the type of warfighting organization that Congress directed the SECDEF to form.

Although Congress chose the wrong Joint doctrinal term in its directive two years ago, its intent was clear. Congress directed the SECDEF to establish a SCJTF, led by a four-star commander, poised and ready to command, orchestrate, and synchronize the employment of the Combined Joint forces allocated to the INDOPACOM theater.

For clarity, doctrinal definitions are important. In Joint doctrine, “Operational JTFs are the most common type of JTF and are established in response to a SECDEF-approved military operation or crisis … a Standing JTF is a JTF originally established as an operational JTF, but that has an enduring mission that is projected to continue indefinitely.” Clearly, there is no military operation or crisis ongoing in the INDOPACOM AOR, as yet, therefore a SCJTF aligns with Congressional intent.

Let’s cut to the chase. If the PLA chose to launch a first strike to seize Taiwan, Paparo would be compelled set up a CJTF on the fly, in the chaos of war, with no time for Crisis Action Planning. In other words, he will have to form a “pick up” team so to speak, cobbled together from personnel and equipment within his Component Commands, augmented by specialists across all Services, Allies, and other government agencies.

The problem is that the US military’s ability to do this quickly is poor. Historically, this process has taken Combatant Commands months to complete. INDOPACOM and other Combatant Commands were never designed to be warfighting headquarters; conducting large-scale, combat operations to protect America’s interests in the region was not what was envisioned when the COCOM structure stood up in 1986.

It’s difficult to understate how serious this is. The business of mastering the complex operational-level warfighting tasks necessary to defeat the combined forces of the PLA cannot be achieved without a stable command and staff team that has trained together tirelessly to develop and sustain proficiency in these tasks. Strangers, however competent, thrown together to form an ad hoc operational CJTF won’t cut it. Conducting synchronized, Joint All-Domain Operations at CJTF-level is a tough, complex, uncompromising business involving the orchestration of thousands of moving pieces. It is no place for amateurs.

For example, the ability to collect, analyze and disseminate actionable intelligence, the ability to employ the full array of Joint sensors throughout the Joint Operations Area to find high-payoff targets, the ability to mass lethal and non-lethal effects against these targets at the right time and place, while protecting forces and critical facilities from enemy counterstrikes, hinges on a mastery of joint combined arms synchronization — the most complex of all operational and tactical warfighting tasks. The skill and ability to do this takes endless training and practice. Only continual Combined/Joint, multi-echelon training, and plenty of it, can transform the combat potential of a SCJTF into a dominant force that can withstand first strike, rally quickly to seize the tactical and operational initiative, then transition to counter-offensive operations — the only means of achieving victory against the PLA.

Frustratingly, we see the opposite approach in INDOPACOM training exercises today. INDOPACOM typically tasks one of its component command headquarters to serve as a temporary operational JTF or CJTF for training exercises, e.g., Headquarters, US Army Pacific or Headquarters, III Marine Expeditionary Force.  None of these and other Component Command headquarters are fully staffed, trained, and equipped to serve as an operational CJTF under combat conditions. All are cobbled together for exercise purposes, all requiring substantial augmentation from other Component Commands, Allies, and national agencies to perform the role of a CJTF for a typical two-week training exercise. Moreover, they are given 18-24 months to prepare for each exercise.

This approach — forming temporary CJTFs using Component Command headquarters as a base — guarantees that few members of the temporary CJTF staff become experts in Joint warfare nor have the knowledge of all capabilities the other services bring to the fight. At the end of each exercise, the knowledge, skills, and abilities that CJTF commanders and their staffs gain during an exercise evaporates when they return to their previous assignments, where they re-focus on parochial service interests in theater. Whatever Joint warfighting skills they develop during training decay quickly over time. High staff personnel turnover disperses the rest. Year after year, the process repeats itself.

We need to come to our senses. If the PLA launches a first strike, there will be no time to stand up an operational CJTF in the confusion and chaos of battle, much less train the organization. Forming a SCJTF now, highly trained and poised to fight, is the only solution to the PLA’s most likely course of action. A SCJTF would put teeth in deterrence forcing the Chinese to factor this formidable warfighting organization in its cost-benefit calculations.

Now is the time to reorganize and restructure INDOPACOM accordingly. And while it may feel less urgent, let’s do the same for EUCOM and CENTCOM as well. A restructure of Combatant Commands is long overdue. They were formed under strategic conditions that existed 38 years ago during the Cold War, specifically to fit the needs of their era. But that era is long gone.

Ignore the detractors within DoD who perpetually whine and argue the idea is inefficient and unaffordable. If we lose our first battle against the PLA, that will be a lame excuse.

Colonel (Ret) John D. Rosenberger served 29 years in the US Army as an armored cavalry officer and 20 years as a defense contractor at the forefront of Army and Joint modernization. For two years, serving directly for the SACEUR, he orchestrated the training of all NATO Combined Joint Task Forces in Europe in planning and executing large scale conventional operations. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of JANUS Research Group, Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.