When Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper committed the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to increasing investment in international engagement and deepening partnerships across the Indo-Pacific, the ADF responded by creating the Indo-Pacific Endeavour mission. An annual activity, Indo-Pacific Endeavour brings together the combined arms strength of the ADF in a task force that crosses Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, conducting exercises, defense engagements, and humanitarian relief operations with countries across the region. There are a number of laudable elements in how Indo-Pacific Endeavour is conducted, but one of the smartest things the ADF does is invite non-military observers along for the ride, and the U.S. Navy should be doing the same in its own regional missions.
The U.S. Navy carries out several critical exercises in the Indo-Pacific every year that directly affect major areas of foreign policy focus for the nation. However, while they create a few headlines in the region itself, very little notice is paid to them outside the Navy’s own public affairs ecosystem. Its Pacific Partnership mission has taken on a multilateral character, in some cases commanded by an allied officer, and has done valuable humanitarian work providing medical assistance to thousands since its inception in the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. But beyond regional media and U.S. Navy press, few Americans likely know that it even happens. Bringing informed observers on board U.S. missions such as the Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training exercise or Pacific Partnership would allow a different sector of the American public to see the Navy and its global mission through a new set of eyes, as well as better inform analysts that will be writing about the Navy.
Academics and think tankers do not necessarily know the military in an up-close-and-personal sense. They may know individual members and will often have studied the institutions for years, but no amount of study can replicate the experience of seeing a sunrise while cruising across the Indian Ocean or flying over the shore in a helicopter. Those of us in the Navy may forget that even falling asleep on board a ship is a memorable event. Creating experiences such as these for a key group of constituents is a cheap way for the Navy to ensure analysts intimately understand it and, even better, remember it fondly.
Bringing in qualified observers might also bridge the trust gap that has grown between Congress and the Navy. Allowing analysts and academics first-hand access to ships, aircraft, and sailors under the strain of operations might help those observers bring new attention to issues of lagging maintenance, insufficient sleep, and a shrinking fleet. And those observers would likely bring with them the kind of truth-seeking questions that might help the Navy focus its own thinking and translate its requirements into a message ready for congress and the American public. Inviting analysts to challenge the Navy about what it thinks is right will improve the Navy’s own narrative around the imperative for its proposed force structure and current funding needs.
Humanizing the Navy’s role in the Indo-Pacific by increasing authentic coverage and knowledge of its security cooperation with states in the region would help U.S. efforts to emphasize its role as an indispensable provider of public goods. As regional states are increasingly wary of U.S.-China competition, highlighting the fundamental difference in the U.S. Navy’s presence vice that of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is of utmost importance in establishing an effective narrative.
In Australia’s example, the 2019 iteration of Indo-Pacific Endeavor was continuously shadowed by PLAN warships and several Australian helicopter pilots flying over the South China Sea were lased by fishing boats, possibly tied to Beijing’s maritime militia. That this fact was reported on by a respected civilian analyst that was able to sit down at a galley table with those pilots to discuss their experience is just one example of the value this model creates. It should be noted that the Center for Naval Analyses does embed analysts within U.S. Navy commands, both afloat and ashore, but broadening the aperture to a broader community of unaffiliated professors and analysts would build new bridges for the service.
The U.S. Navy might do well to take Australia’s model a step further and bring in multinational analysts to ride along for its Indo-Pacific missions. Rather than telling the states of the Indo-Pacific about how Beijing is engaged in nefarious activities at sea, the Navy should show them. This kind of openness and transparency is an advantage the United States has over its competition, and it should use it to the fullest. As the U.S. Navy plans its key regional engagements for 2023, it should find a few empty racks for academics.