Reflecting on a Changing Indo-Pacific: A Conversation With Admiral John Aquilino

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Commander, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, U.S. Department of Defense


Counsel, Boies Schiller Flexner LLP; CFR Member

Admiral John Aquilino discusses his work as commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, as well as the security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, solutions to deliver integrated deterrence, and multilateral partnerships.

Please note there is no virtual component to this meeting. Please not the audio, video, and transcript of this meeting will be posted on the CFR website.

BOIES: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to our meeting today with Admiral John Aquilino, who is the combatant commander, the commander of the INDOPACOM. I am Mary Boies. I’m a lawyer here in New York, and I’m going to ask him questions for thirty minutes and then we will turn it over to you. We are on the record. 

So Admiral Aquilino is a fighter pilot. He flew F-14s, F-18s with over a thousand aircraft carrier landings; his call sign, “Lung,” but I still call him Admiral. 

So the INDOPACOM includes the Pacific Ocean, about half of the Indian Ocean, plus all the countries on their coastlines. We have troops there based principally in Japan, Hawaii, South Korea, and Guam. 

So Admiral, in your command posture, you identified three key adversarial challenges—China, North Korea, and Russia—and you note that they have become interconnected. So let’s begin with China and the Philippines. You have said that China’s strategic goals are unchanged from those that it held before 2021—you became the INDOPACOM commander in 2021. It remains the only competitor with the military strength, will, and intent to change the world order with authoritarian characteristics and displace the free and open Pacific. So let’s start with the Philippines, where China has significantly increased its aggression, claiming sovereignty over Philippine waters. What is China’s objective here? 

AQUILINO: Thanks, Mary. Good morning. First, thanks to you for doing this. Thanks to The Council for having me back. It’s always amazing to be here. I do go by “Lung” in my house, though I answer to, “Hey, you.” (Laughter.) So you can call me whatever you want. 

Yeah, I’ve articulated that the strategic environment, especially in the Pacific, is getting more challenging every day. So you identified three of the four—three of the five national security challenges that are identified in our National Defense Strategy, but you left one out. Violent extremism exists in the Indo-Pacific, as well, specifically in Southern Philippines where the Philippines are combatting violent extremism. And we always look out for the expansion of violent extremism. 

So four of the five security challenges are in the AOR. That’s a handful. Let me start with the point you made with regard to the linkage between China and Russia, right—the words of Xi Jinping, is this a relationship not seen in a hundred years, a no-limits relationship? And that’s very concerning. It’s concerning as it applies to Ukraine, and any assistance that’s being supported. 

On top of that, the Russia-DPRK cooperation has increased, DPRK missiles sent to Russia to be shot into Ukraine. That’s a problem. And when you link all three of them together, the strategic objective is to displace the United States and to push authoritarianism back into the region, and ultimately, for the PRC’s objective, it’s for global influence. And let’s not lose sight: it’s for global influence and ultimately hegemony. That’s the target. 

So when you talk specifically about the Philippines, that’s one aspect of it. The sovereignty claims that the PRC makes at Second Thomas Shoal are illegal. They have been invalidated by the 2016 tribunal. They have no legal right, yet they are not stopping. 

So the intent to deliver all things inside the nine- or ten-dash line—depending on which day you ask—as Chinese sovereign territory, is the objective. And that’s the short-term objective. The longer-term objective is to spread that globally. So let’s not lose sight of what target they’re shooting at, and that ought to help inform how we think about going forward, and how we do it with our allies and partners. 

BOIES: And they are being very—the Chinese are being very aggressive with respect, just for example, to the Philippines. They are putting water cannons on vessels, they are ramming vessels, they are putting military grade lasers into the Philippine coast guard, they are blocking the coast guard’s—the Philippines’ entrance into their own waters, and yet nothing seems to be happening to counter that, that we can see here. What is the right counter, and why aren’t we doing it? 

AQUILINO: Well, I think you are actually seeing some of the counter, and let me commend President Marcos, National Security Advisor Año, Minister Teodoro, as well as my counterpart, General Brawner, because the Philippines are really standing up, and they are working to pull together the whole of likeminded nations in the community to denounce this terrible behavior. And, for me, that is the right step. This is about the global set of likeminded nations coming together and saying, we will not accept that aggressive, dangerous behavior, and that is the right place to be right now. 

So, again, I’m very, very impressed by the leadership of the Philippines and the actions they are taking, and the United States’ support. In the most recent event, there were—multiple nations came together with very strong statements, to include Australia and Japan denouncing this activity. I’ve been advocating for the rest of those likeminded nations that would not like to be in that same position to also come forward and denounce that behavior. 

BOIES: Denouncement and statements—so last week President Marcos was in Washington with the president and others. He was there with Japan, as well, and at the end, our administration, including the president, said that our commitment to the Philippines and Japan is ironclad, and aggressive action by China may invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty that we have with the Philippines. That was on Friday. 

On Saturday, China blocked two Philippine vessels from coming into what the tribunal has ruled as Philippine water. Now what trigger—I’m not looking for another war here or another engagement by our (country ?), but what triggers the Mutual Defense Treaty? Is it a blockade—if you stop ships for two hours from their own territory? 

AQUILINO: Yeah, Mary, those are going to be policy decisions as it applies. I think President Marcos was on the net the other day that talked about any death of a sailor would push the Philippines to request the invocation of the Mutual Defense Treaty. So again, those policy questions are not mine; those are for the leadership to understand where that line is, if it gets crossed, and how we take on and what responses might be dictated. So my job is to provide options to the secretary and the president, and we’ve been in communication with the leadership to lay out, you know, all the bad things that could happen, and what things we might be able to contribute. 

BOIES: Just for clarification, as a combatant commander, he reports directly to the secretary of defense and the president. He is not through the other parts of our military. 

Well, let me turn to Taiwan. You have said, as recently as last month, all indications point to the PLA meeting President Xi’s directive to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027. You also said the PLA’s actions indicate their ability to meet Xi’s preferred timeline to unify Taiwan with mainland China by force if directed. 

Given China’s economic challenges right now, do you think it is seriously expected that, what Xi is claiming for many years he is going to do, he may in fact do? 

AQUILINO: Yeah, Mary, so—just to clear up a couple of things that you said, my articulation has been that the president, President Xi Jinping, has tasked his military to deliver the capabilities needed to be able to take on a Taiwan problem by force, if directed. So what you’ve seen with his military budget and the actions is this year, 7.2 percent increase advertised by the PRC towards their defense industry. We see the continuous delivery of fifth-generation airplanes, missile systems, satellites, high-end warships. So they’ve made a conscious choice, despite the economic problem set that you’ve talked about, to invest and continue to deliver military capabilities. That’s what leads me to believe that they are on path to deliver what the president asked for by ’27. 

On top of that, I don’t believe 7.2 percent. The system is so opaque, the way it is calculated, we should never get into a side-by-side comparison of what is the PRC spending against what is the United States spending, and utilizing that as a measure of whether or not we’re on the same path because they are so completely opaque with what they do. So they’ve made that calculus; they’ve made that conscious choice, despite 30 percent of the economy bottoming out of the PRC, to maintain their investment in military capability. That’s concerning to me.  

So for us, it’s pretty important to recognize that the United States’ policy has not changed as it applies to Taiwan. We value and we support the peaceful resolution of this dispute to the satisfaction of people on both sides of the Straits, free of coercion. And what I’ve talked about is the fact that we do not see “free of coercion.” The increased pressure in the maritime and air domain that’s being provided, and the cyber domain, and in the information space from the PRC against the people on Taiwan is continuing, and it has increased over my three years. So that decision will be—President Xi, we hope he makes the smart choice—but to articulate that the United States has changed their position, we do not support an independent Taiwan. Our policy has not changed. They cannot blame the increased coercion activities that they are doing on the United States. It’s just an invalid argument. 

BOIES: So I’m going to break the rules, and I’m going to expand on your statement before I ask you the next question. And you have said that since your arrival—or thereabouts, 2021—China has added over 400 fighter aircraft, almost all fourth and fifth generation; more than twenty major warships; doubled its inventory of ballistic and cruise missiles—doubled; increased the number of launched satellites by over 50 percent; and most concerning, it has bolstered its nuclear arsenal. 

Are we doing enough to keep up? 

AQUILINO: So, first of all, I thank the secretary and the deputy for the strategy-based budget that they have been working for their time in office. My point has been it’s correct, but based on the pace and speed at which the PRC is delivering, we also have to go faster. To deliver our deterrent capabilities, we need to go faster. 

And one of the ways we’ve done that in INDOPACOM is I’ve initiated the Joint Mission Accelerator Directorate, which is designed to deliver a set of capabilities—specific capabilities that I’ve asked for—that we think we can deliver quickly. We’ve wrapped those around the term decision superiority. So our Joint Fires Network, which allows me to close kill chains; our ability to deliver the INDOPACOM Mission Network, which is our transport mechanism to be able to communicate with our allies and partners. Additionally, our Pacific multi-mission training environment, which accelerates our training capabilities across the region and links our ranges from Japan to the West Coast of the United States; and then lastly, our StormBreaker program, which delivers our ability to plan and then simulate our efforts to accelerate our ability to ultimately deliver options to the secretary. Those four initiatives we are trying to accelerate. And the ability to link those together and deliver them does provide an asymmetric advantage in the form of decision superiority. 

BOIES: Taiwan is a very large country by population, and it has—it has increased its military and defense mechanisms, but it appears to be rather short on the people that it has in its home guard, in its military, in its militias. 

What, if anything, have we done—or should we do—to encourage Taiwan to bolster its home guard and its ability to defend itself, not just with hardware, but with people? 

AQUILINO: So the one thing China doesn’t have is a shortage of people. Let’s just make sure we get that right. And it’s a conscript force. So over the last two years, the decline in the overall population of China at a significant value is a result of the one-child policy. So, again, choices and decisions they’ve made have impacted where they sit today. But they are hardly out of people, right—1.4 billion people with a conscript force. This is not going to be a problem for them to man their military. 

As it applies to Taiwan, those are decisions that the people on Taiwan will have to make. I think what I would say, Mary, is, you know, I think what right looks like is what we most recently saw from Israel. Israel receives a horrible, just unforgiveable terrorism act that slaughtered 1,200 of their citizens. And the next day, 360,000 Israelis mobilized—in one day. That’s the model that looks right if I were on Taiwan. So that’s for them to figure out, but I think what we’ve seen probably lays out a pretty good path for how they have to go. 

BOIES: It’s a very good path, but those people who appeared the very next day in Israel had been previously trained and had previously served in the IDF, and they knew exactly what they were doing, and they knew how to do it. Is that the case in Taiwan? 

AQUILINO: I believe they are working on it. From the United States’ perspective, we execute our support to Taiwan through the guidance of the Taiwan Relations Act. And we’re taking that on. 

BOIES: OK, fair enough.  

All right, let me turn to the DPRK, North Korea. You have said that North Korea’s primary strategic priority—regime security—has remained fixed for a decade. Now does that mean that North Korea is not a risk to our homeland unless we challenge directly its regime security? 

AQUILINO: Well, so, Mary, it’s a family business in the DPRK. So the survival of that family, and in a leadership role in that country, is the top priority. Now, that said, they certainly have other priorities.  

We never discount the threat. As a matter of fact, from the military side, we always plan on worse case. But what I do believe—as my battle buddy, General LaCamera, as the U.S. Forces Korea commander, along with Admiral Kim, the CFC, his counterpart, and the chairman of the ROC forces—what he’s done over the past three years—we’ve increased the size and scope of the exercises that we do to deliver readiness in a combined force that can protect South Korea; that if attacked, that increased readiness is a really strong deterrent capability. 

Now, Kim Jong Un continues to spend the small amounts of money that the DPRK has on his military capabilities instead of feeding his people. Those are choices that he makes, but I think the 28,500 U.S. forces on the pen with the incredible ROK forces that we work and train with every day is a pretty strong deterrent. So I’m comfortable that our deterrent effects and our warfighting capabilities combined with the ROK’s, KJU understands. He doesn’t really want to take that on. 

BOIES: Right. The ROK is South Korea. I think I’m more afraid of his sister than I am of him. (Laughter.) 

AQUILINO: I’m not afraid of either of them. (Laughter.) 

BOIES: That’s why you’re sitting there and I’m sitting here. (Laughter.) 

All right. Let’s turn to Russia. We don’t normally think of Russia as a Pacific power. I mean, it is, after all, part of the European Command, although you work closely with your counterpart there. But you have said that, even with its war on Ukraine, Russia has prioritized the Pacific and Arctic regions, and Russia remains a, quote, “formidable potential adversary in the Pacific.” Explain. 

AQUILINO: Seventeen hundred miles of Russian coastline on the Pacific side that, in the water space I’m responsible to support General Cavoli as it needs it—or as he might need it as the coordinating authority—he’s the coordinating authority for the Russia problem set. 

The Russians have bolstered their Pacific fleet over the three years I’ve been there—two Dolgorukiy submarines, and a Severodvinsk, as well as increased-caliber-capable maritime assets. So as they have this illegal, illegitimate fight against the Ukrainians, they are attempting to prove or maintain the international community’s view that Russia is a global power. And they are doing it by executing operations in the Pacific.  

Additionally, they are executing joint and combined operations with the Russians in the Pacific, whether it be maritime, or native patrols, or airborne bomber patrols. They’ve landed Chinese bombers in Russia; Russian bombers have landed in China, and they’ve patrolled together. So this increased coordination and collaboration is concerning. But they are a Pacific power, and we take actions every day to ensure, number one, our homeland is defended, and then, number two, that we’re monitoring and ensuring we’re tracking all Russian activities in the Pacific. And if General Cavoli needs any action in the Pacific, we can coordinate that and synchronize. And that’s something that’s pretty important because there is no other powers that can coordinate and synchronize global operations in all domains with our allies and partners like the United States—undersea, on the sea, above the sea, in space and cyberspace, across the globe, instantaneously. No other nation can do it. 

BOIES: Does your AOR—area of responsibility—include the Arctic?  

AQUILINO: It does not. That sunny garden spot is left to the NORTHCOM commander, as we’ve drawn our lines. So, that said, as we talk about integration and synchronization, we coordinate with all the combatant commanders if anything is needed. So if there was an issue in the Arctic, I might help provide forces to the NORTHCOM commander, should he need to take action. We provide—I provide forces for the NORTHCOM commander against those bomber flights that potentially come in the form of threatening to the United States, whether it be Alaska or the continental United States. So that coordination happens every day. 

BOIES: OK, and I’m going to now turn back to a China-related issue, and that is Guam. You have described the Guam cluster of islands as the cornerstone of U.S. security architecture west of the international dateline. Every year the military services and combatant commands send to Congress an unfunded priorities list. This is a list of priorities that senior military have that have not been included in the president’s budget sent to Congress, and the first item on your list this year, as I understand it, is building the infrastructure in Guam. 

Explain the importance of Guam. 

AQUILINO: So it has been my top priority in my unfunded list and requests for three years, and that’s because, number one, homeland defense is the top priority mission the secretary has assigned. And Guam is the homeland. There’s 170,000 U.S. citizens on Guam. So that’s why priority one.  

But additionally, as we operate throughout the Pacific, you know, we intend and we will plan on operating from Guam. Andersen Air Force Base is on that island. There’s Naval Base Guam that—submarines can get in there as well as logistics needs from both the APOD—or the airports and the seaports to be able to sustain a fight if we were to get in one. So for those Guam—what we refer to as the Guam cluster—think Guam, Tinian, Yap—those areas will be critically important for us to be able to operate from. 

BOIES: OK, let me stick with the unfunded priorities list. Your list this year asked for $11 billion more than the White House’s defense budget request. That amount is three times greater than the wish list submitted last year, and it is by far the largest list that was submitted from all parts of our military, if I understand correctly. 

AQUILINO: I’ve had that distinction for three years. 

BOIES: (Laughs.) 

AQUILINO: So Mary, the unfunded list and the growth—the numbers are interesting. It sounds like a bad story but, number one, no one should be surprised. In last year’s congressionally required and directed report, I was asked to not only submit what I needed in ’24, but to highlight what it would need to be in ’25.  

Our projection was $21 ½ billion for ’25. We came in this year at 26 (billion dollars). So what I would say is last year I had a $3 ½ billion shortfall. That doesn’t go away, so 21 (billion dollars) and 3 ½ (billion dollars)— 

BOIES: Got it. 

AQUILINO: —inflation, and new requirements based on what the adversary has done. So our requirements really only increased—it was less than a billion dollars than we projected from last year. So I don’t want anybody to come back to me and say, oh, my God, 3 ½ (billion dollars)? You grew—look how you grew. Well, we told you we were going to grow. There are some reasons for that. Number one is we try to deliver the posture initiatives in the theater—very immature theater for posture. So the processes that are required is, first, we have to assess, then we have to do planning and design, and then we have to get to military construction. So as we work through that process over the years, we are starting to get to shovel-ready military construction projects. Those are expensive, and the cost goes up. That’s one of the reasons of the growth. 

Second, the adversary continues to change and adjust, and our approaches are adjusted. So we also support new capabilities that we previously didn’t identify, whether they are in the space domain, or whether they are aligned to the Replicator Initiative that Deputy Secretary Hicks laid out with regard to swarming, autonomous, unmanned capability that delivers an asymmetric advantage to us. Those are new capabilities that we added to it. 

My list over the three years has been roughly 90-ish, 92-ish percent consistent. So there should be no surprises in what we’ve asked for and why. And in our report we had dedicated appendices to the report that clearly lay out why we need these things, right? I am not trying to generate a bill for a bill’s sake. These are critical capabilities, and they are joint-enabling capabilities. In other words, you build, you synchronize the services, and deliver joint warfighting effects. 

So we actually predict that next year it will go down a little, if fully funded; if not fully funded, guess what? It’s going to go up. So the requirements don’t go away, but we did have a ramp, and all the way back to my predecessor. He articulated roughly $100 billion over ten years was what was needed to put the things in place, and we’re still on that path. So I don’t think there should be shock and awe, or surprise. We’ve been really open, and transparent, and aligned with the building on our capabilities.  

BOIES: It’s a very detailed list. I won’t ask you about any of the items that are on the classified category. And maybe— 

AQUILINO: And I won’t tell you about any of them. 

BOIES: I know you won’t. (Laughs.) And this may fall in there, so if it does, just let me know. 

On your list you ask for more than a billion dollars to accelerate development and procurement of the Maritime Strike Tomahawk cruise missile. What can you tell us about that, and why is it so important? 

AQUILINO: Well, the ability to deliver effects to mobile maritime units is pretty important in the Pacific fight, when you talk about the potential to have to engage with a maritime invasion force. So a Maritime Strike Tomahawk weapon shouldn’t surprise anybody. That said, it can be delivered from multiple platforms; certainly, our destroyers and our aircraft can deliver those. But we also need to be able to deliver those effects from the land component, whether they be Marine Corps, MLRs—Marine Littoral Regiments—or the Army Multi-Domain Task Forces. The ability to deliver fires from all domains and synchronize them is what we need to do. So the weapons we’ve asked for are not just single-service weapons; those are going to go to three services. And ultimately, we’d love to get them into the other—air domain to be able to deliver from air platforms if needed. That’s why the focus.  

BOIES: Thank you. I think I have time for one more question and I am going to ask you about what I understand is the JMAD, the Joint Mission Accelerator that you are working on with the DIU—the Defense Innovation Unit. I think we all know about the DIU at the Department of Defense but you’ve got someone embedded with you out in Honolulu. Tell us about some of the projects you’re doing.  

AQUILINO: Well, again, I’ve highlighted those four. So Joint Fires Network, the INDOPACOM Mission Network, PMTEC, and StormBreaker are the four programs specifically that I am trying to accelerate through this Joint Mission Accelerator.  

Mr. Rob Morrison is my lead for that. Doug Beck has graciously provided the deputy to the JMAD directorate, a guy named Justin. That synchronization allows us to focus on the INDOPACOM needs but pull in Washington, D.C., support and link through not just Doug Beck’s team at DIU but A&S, CDAO, any other supporting agency. 


AQUILINO: Acquisition and sustainment, and then CDAO is— 

BOIES: Whatever it is. 

AQUILINO: Well, it’s the information directorate run under OSD to be able to get to standardized data. CDAO, will help me. Rich? (Laughter.) Something data— 

AUDIENCE MEMBER: AI—(inaudible). 

AQUILINO: No, it’s not AI. It’s AO. I’ll get that for the record. 

BOIES: I apologize. 

AQUILINO: No, my bad. We only speak in acronyms. 

AUDIENCE MEMBER: (Inaudible)—AI office.  

BOIES: I believe I interrupted you, sir. 

AQUILINO: But the— 

BOIES: A second apology. (Laughs.) 

AQUILINO: No, no, no. That directorate is designed to be able to get to efficiencies and effectiveness across those critically symbiotic programs. So whether it’s the ability to pull data that can be standardized across, utilize specific algorithms and AI applications that can accelerate those four directorates, and, again, they’re so linked that it’s worth putting them under one umbrella. The cybersecurity aspect and zero trust is needed and I don’t want to have to do it four times four different ways.  

So that was the thought and the idea of pulling it together and it’s actually yielded some benefit and it’s accelerated—it has done some acceleration with regard to where we were a year ago compared to where we were—where we are now.  

BOIES: Thank you, sir.  

AQUILINO: Yes, ma’am. 

BOIES: I would like to give a special welcome today to our military fellows here at the Council. They are the best and brightest in our upcoming military leadership. You will recognize them by their uniforms and I hope that you find the time to say hello and get to know them before they leave, which will begin late spring/early summer.  

At this time I’d like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder that this meeting is on the record, and if you have a question raise your hand, state your name and with whom you are affiliated and, please, questions, not speeches.  

Thank you. Yes, ma’am? 

Q: Maggie Lewis, Seton Hall University.  

I wanted to ask about Kinmen and its particular vulnerabilities with Taiwan and to the extent you can speak to the U.S.’ activities, roles, and goals directly in Kinmen and also the February 14th incident where there was the collision between the PRC and Taiwanese vessels. It’s deescalated but how lucky were we and what are sort of the procedures in place to mitigate and, if they do occur, deal with similar—hopefully, not EP-3 level but incidents that might happen? Thanks.  

AQUILINO: Thanks. Well, as you know, Kinmen is a mile off the coast of mainland China, so the agreements that have been made between the mainland and Taiwan we expect those to be maintained. What we continue to see is increased coercion and pressure across the whole spectrum, not just on the mainland island of Taiwan, and you just described some of the recent actions that we’ve seen where China has taken actions to erase those traditional lines of demarcation that have been put in place to reduce tension and reduce miscalculation.  

So I’m pretty concerned because they continue to increase their coercive behavior and they’ve expanded it across all of those same areas.  

BOIES: Sir, you are next, and then you, sir, and then you, sir. 

Q: Thank you very much. Elliot Waldman, Point72.  

There has been a lot of activity recently— 

BOIES: I’m sorry. I missed your name.  

Q: Oh, Elliot Waldman, Point72.  

BOIES: Thank you. 

Q: There’s been a lot of activity recently in the region with regard to U.S. alliances. U.S., Japan, and Korea have a pretty unprecedented increase in trilateral cooperation. Also, Philippines, Australia.  

Curious if you could sort of give your view on what is the remaining work to be done there in terms of how to increase further cooperation with U.S. forces and interoperability and coordination there as well as how—to what extent do you think you can rely on these allies in the event of a conflict with Taiwan?  

AQUILINO: Yeah. Thanks.  

So the first thing that I would say is the strategy is absolutely right, right? The pulling together of like-minded partners in the region is an asymmetric advantage both in competition and if we were to potentially get to crisis or a conflict.  

So we’ve made huge advances there. Now, we ought to all recognize why those advances have been made. 

First, they—we and they have the same values, right? We are looking for freedom, freedom of navigation, human rights, peaceful interaction, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. That is what many and almost all like-minded nations value. That holds us together. 

But don’t lose sight of the aggressive activities by the PRC driving those nations together because they’re concerned about their sovereignty, they’re concerned about those values, and the actions and the aggressiveness of the PRC is something that nobody’s too interested in.  

So bring all those together. It’s pulling together the vast set of like-minded nations and it’s happening in different clusters so the ROK-Japan-U.S. collaboration as it applies to the defense against DPRK and other threats in the region.  

Number one, I thanked and I admire President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida for pulling together the trilateral set of nations to the north. Incredibly bold decisions, very politically charged, and they’ve done what I believe is the right thing for the right reason, to defend their nations and to defend our nation. 

As it applies to AUKUS, pulling together those capabilities against a threat that’s coming from the north if you’re Australia and the ability to operate in distant seas in a domain and we have a distinct advantage, really important.  

But to your broader question, we have been doing it across the theater now for three years. Once a year, the chiefs of defense and I get together and we hold an in-person conference and then we meet two or three other times virtually. We’re going to get together again on the 29th of this month virtually.  

But every time we get—every in-person CHODs conference we agree to come out with three things that we’re all going to work on, unilaterally committed—excuse me, multilaterally and unanimously agreed to, and the one thing that has been consistent for three years is this, that we will continue to work more mini and multilaterally together and expand our operations.  

So almost every exercise we do, and we do a hundred and twenty of them in the year, has been expanded to more multilateral, more joint, more combined sets of operations. Whether it’s Balikatan with the Philippines, Talisman Sabre with the Australians, Cobra Gold with the Thais, Garuda Shield with the Indonesians, RIMPAC in the United States, all of these have been expanded and broadened. More complex, less scripted, and real training for our militaries to be able to come together at any time.  

So that’s the approach. That’s why and that’s how it’s done. As it applies to, you know, who’s going to support us those are going to be sovereign decisions by nations and it’s what we value is for all nations to have that right and ability to have sovereign choices that meet their own interests. 

So I don’t know but those—that’ll be up to our partners.  

BOIES: So joint means all of our services and combined means with other countries? 

AQUILINO: Correct. 

BOIES: Now, the friends and allies that we have in that region for the most part have as their chief trading partner China. That is a very significant economic stake here. How reasonable is it to expect that they will move beyond these exercises if the time comes? 

AQUILINO: Well, I think—I don’t know what’s reasonable, Mary, but what I think is from the United States, and when you talk about integrated deterrence as described by Secretary Austin that is the linking and bringing together of all forms of national power with the joint force and our allies and partners to prevent conflict. 

That’s the definition that he used. So the competition in the economic space is critically important and I have said that to a variety of the leaders in our nation, and just recently I was in the Philippines—Secretary Raimondo asked me to go to the Philippines with her to highlight the understanding that economic security is national security.  

So we sat there together, number one, to make that point but, number two, because we believe there’s a lot of opportunity, certainly, through national security, economic opportunities that can contribute.  

So I agree, you’ve defined the conundrum, which is China as a very strong economic trading partner. Now, the concern is that their use of economic coercion is a problem for all these nations.  

So what does that mean to me? We need to compete more. We need to provide economic alternatives so that they have something other than just the PRC and we can lessen any concern so that they can make sovereign choices.  

BOIES: Thank you. 


Q: John Lehman, former naval person. Sorry for a little inside— 

AQUILINO: Sir, somewhere I’ve heard your name before. 

Q: Sorry for little inside baseball.  

AQUILINO: It’s good to see you, Mr. Secretary. 

Q: Good to see you, sir. 

In the last forty-two years there have been eleven chiefs of naval operations. Only one out of eleven has been an aviator. Not that you have a personal interest in this but my question is will there ever be another aviator and what is the reason for this discrimination against aviators. (Laughter.)  

AQUILINO: Mr. Secretary, thanks. Thanks for your service and for all your efforts.  

Let me start by saying I don’t feel discriminated against. Certainly, we believe from the aviation community that if you want to get the balance and be able to ensure a voice from all of the tribes that there’s a place for a naval aviator CNO. 

That said, just so you know, I think I’m in the right spot as an operator and, for me, forte of building that budget because, as you know better than anybody, chief of naval operations, there’s no operations in that job description even though it’s in the title.  

So I think what we got to keep continuing to do is put the right people in the right place for the right mission at the right time, and just so you know I’m a big fan of Lisa Franchetti. I think she’s lined up an approach and a path to do the right thing for our Navy and ultimately to support the most challenging threat, which is China.  

It is her focus. So she talks about war fighting, war fighters, and the foundational aspects that deliver it and from your seat delivering 600 ships that’s a big foundation that’s needed. I thanked the Congress in my most recent testimony for what they put in the supplemental in the form of $3 billion going into submarine maintenance.  

We’ve got to get the infrastructure and the Defense Industrial Base back on the right path. Otherwise, we’re never going to be able to get there.  

But from the CNO perspective, Mr. Secretary, I am confident we will have a future aviator CNO. I’m also not only confident but I’m assured it won’t be me. (Laughter.) 

BOIES: Let me just follow up on submarine maintenance. The public reports are that some 40 percent of our submarines are currently sidelined for maintenance. Is that the case and is it concerning?  

AQUILINO: The ability to put more forces in the game is the CNO’s approach. I don’t know exactly what the percentage is. But when you think about naval service and rotation, right, I always think in the form of one-third/one-third/one-third if you want to get to a formula that makes sense, right?  

I got one-third deployed, I got one-third getting ready to go, and I got a third that just came back, and somewhere in that third/a third/a third you got to maintain it because when you put big chunks of metal in salt water they need to be fixed.  

So the ability of our shipyards to take on our forces and turn those ships, submarines, carriers and things—and oh, by the way, you also have aircraft depot maintenance that has to happen—we have to get to a sustainable path where we can be more predictable and have more assets to put out when needed. So that’s this Defense Industrial Base issue.  

Mr. Secretary, let me ask you a question. How many shipyards did you have when you were building 600 ships?  

Q: Double what we have now. 

AQUILINO: Well, we got—I think we got, like, seven. 

So, again, we have to get to a different place, and it’s not because we want to—it’s because we need to. The geostrategic environment today is the most challenging I’ve ever seen. So we went to just in time, right? Look at what happened when all those decisions were made, and I’m not being pejorative on those who made those decisions, right? 

Glasnost was breaking out with Russia and we thought China was going to weave into the international community in a responsible way, and neither of those things happened. So the question is what do we do about it and it’s get ourselves back on a footing where we can ensure we can crank out military capability if needed at a moment’s notice and sustain it because this nation is the most innovative anywhere. When it comes time to crisis there is nobody that gets on things faster than us.  

From where I sit now, we’re trying to prevent the crisis and that’s a new model and a new way of thinking. Let’s get that all up to speed because those effects are deterrent effects and we need to do it now and faster.  

BOIES: You’re next, and then you, sir, and then in the way back.  

Q: Hi. Good morning. I’m Eric Gardiner with Via Transportation. I’m also a former naval special warfare officer so beat Army. (Laughter.) 

A question for you about—as, obviously, a different AOR but what are the biggest lessons you’ve taken from having the opportunity to observe how our adversaries and allies are using technology and the tactics they’re using with them in both Ukraine as well as now in the Israel conflict and how does that affect the way that you give priorities or organize the JMAD or bring technology into your theater?  

AQUILINO: Yeah, thanks.  

Well, number one, you know, I wasn’t surprised by the drone things. I don’t think General Cavoli was surprised by the actions on drones, right? We started it and used it for a number of years, whether it be for ISR or for other capabilities.  

So what we have to be able to do is mobilize and put that technology in place as needed for us as fast as we can. This Replicator program is kind of a really good example, right? Think about, you know, a hundred and fifty swarming surface vessels controlled autonomously to deliver effects where you need them when you need them.  

Same from the undersea domain, and then in the air domain, which has been pretty mature, but there’s new capabilities even there that we’re going to need to put together. So the key is for us to be innovative to be—I guess, not have a loss of imagination and then be able to scale it, right?  

So from the special operator community you guys are the best at it. That said, it’s a small group. Small, highly-trained, effective teams have the ability to do that very quickly. When you look at it theaterwide over half the globe, it is a much bigger, broader challenge.  

So Hondo Geurts is a great friend. What he did in the special operations community I’m pretty sure—I know for a fact the last CNO was trying to pull him in and get some of that same thinking into the Navy budget. The Air Force has got the SCO model and the Army has done a variety of other things as well. 

 So I think we understand it. We have to be able to go after it, number one, to counter but I would say also number one is to be able to deliver dilemmas to our adversary with our innovation. So I agree we need to do it. Really hard to do it at scale.  

BOIES: Yes, you’re next, sir.  

Q: Peter Pettibone, U.S.-Russia Business Council.  

Where does India fit in today’s discussion? On the one hand, it is supporting Russia by purchasing oil and gas from Russia. On the other hand, it is an adversary of China and there have been clashes. So where does India, this huge country, fit into what we’ve been talking about today? Thank you.  

AQUILINO: Yeah. Thank you, sir. India is—we have many, many, many, certainly, common values and common interests as well. So a billion six people with demographics that go all in the right direction, India is a partner that we need to continue to nourish and work through.  

This is going to take some strategic patience for the United States and we’re going to have to think about India in the form of a longer game. We exercise with India and partner with them on a lot of things. We do carrier cooperation, technology sharing with India. They build C-130 airframes in India. They build portions of the H-60 in India. 

They are trying to wean themselves off of Russian equipment because, number one, it doesn’t work and, number two, they don’t like it. That said, 75 percent of their military hardware is Russian and if we think they’re going to throw it all out tomorrow that’s just not going to happen. They have a responsibility to defend their nation.  

So I’m very comfortable. My partner General Chauhan in India has been a good friend and a good partner. We cooperate. We share intelligence. We are here to protect the navigation waterways, the airspace, the international rules together and we’re just going to have to take some time here and let them work through this.  

Do we like everything they’re doing? No. But is it the world’s largest democracy with common values? Yes. We have a lot of the same values and we do have a common security challenger, as you articulated. So just some patience. 

BOIES: The gentleman in the way, way back. 

Q: Hi. I’m Jeff Nuechterlein with Nue Capital. 

I have a question with regard to cyber warfare and cybersecurity, which you touched on earlier. Can you talk about how big a threat that is, what you’re seeing in that regard, and what we’re doing about it?  

AQUILINO: Yeah. Thank you. So there was an article out about two months ago about the PRC targeting the infrastructure on Guam and infrastructure in the continental United States. We should expect it. They would intend to deliver chaos and concern and the ability to negatively impact our capability to force generate in time of crisis. We should anticipate it and expect it.  

So we can put our heads in the sand and pretend like it won’t happen, yet it will. So we have to bolster our defenses. My partner at CYBERCOM is one of my greatest friends and we work together every day to synchronize that but, number one, we got to defend. Our civilian infrastructure has got to defend.  

And then, number two, we have to work towards the delivery of our effects whenever and wherever we would like to deliver to meet our objectives. So it is critically important. The zero trust approach is the right one. That goes to the defense capability and our allies and partners all have to strengthen their defenses.  

These are things that are going to impact everyone. So, to your point, it is a vulnerability that we need to shore up and we need to do it together with the like-minded nations in the region.  

BOIES: Yes, sir, and then you. 

Q: Tao Tan, Perception Capital. 

I’d like to follow up on Secretary Lehman’s comments about the Defense Industrial Base. It’s an issue that’s not just funding and money but also talent, supply chain, workforce, so on and so forth. It seems that the department is starting to send demand signals now to private industry but those demand signals aren’t yet being heard. So my question is what can we do to ensure that the private industry does respond, does create, again, not just funding but supply chain, supplier base, talent, workforce, and all the things necessary to build ships?  

AQUILINO: Well, I’m pretty sure we’ve been sending that signal, at least in the forty years that I’ve been here. Certainly in Secretary Lehman’s time there was a demand signal. I was the Pacific Fleet commander before I was the INDOPACOM commander. I spent $15 billion to do maintenance every year for three years. How much more of a demand signal do you want?  

So I take the premise and I push back against it because the U.S. Navy and, again, the Air Force for aircraft depot maintenance, the Army for maintenance of tanks and other things, those have been consistent.  

So I don’t really have the answer, and whether it’s profit margins that have resulted in the constriction of the Defense Industrial Base, based on what used to be a just in time supply model, right, all that has now changed. I’m not looking for just in time. I need stuff on the shelves.  

We’ve been buying two submarines a year for the past I don’t know how many years. They’re delivering 1.3 a year. You can’t get any more predictable than what we’ve put in the budget for the past decade or so for submarine delivery.  

Now, I understand that COVID was an impact. I understand workforce issues. But what I believe to my heart of hearts is the Defense Department can’t be the person to take all the risk and we’re going to have to share that with industry and the industrial base as it applies, especially right now, and we got to go quick to get it in place.  

So I don’t even know if I answered your question but I just want to make sure we all understand there’s been a consistent demand signal, and, you know, federal budgets fluctuate but for ship maintenance it’s been pretty consistent now for my time in here.  

For acquisition we’re just going to have to get better at it. We’re going to have to be—the industry is going to have to pony up. They’re going to have to invest some of their own for workforce, for automation, or their machining capability, whatever they need to do to go faster.  

BOIES: Yes, sir? 

Q: Good morning, Admiral. Max van Amerongen, Goldman Sachs and Marine Corps Reserve, a fellow naval officer, sir. 

My question is how would you characterize, if we shift to the human terrain for a moment, relationships between, for example, the United States and the PRC from a DOD and an interagency perspective?  

How would you characterize those and what room or margin is there to improve that or is that worth having so that there are deeper relationships rather than just the principal who can have communication within organs of the PRC when conflicts or misunderstandings occur? Thank you. 

AQUILINO: Yeah. Thanks, Max. 

So, number one, our people are our greatest advantage, OK, whether they be commissioned or noncommissioned. Matter of fact, I’d argue our noncommissioned officers are our single largest asymmetric advantage. So you look at a conscript force vice an all-volunteer force that brings in the best and brightest. We train our people to be good at their jobs and then we give them the responsibility and the authority to execute without having to signal all the way up to the leader of, you know, the CCP, if you will, right? 

We entrust our commanders with an incredible amount of responsibility and, that said, what comes with it is accountability and a responsibility. That advantage is not resident in our adversaries. But we shouldn’t sit back on our laurels and say, OK, boy, we got this, this is good, because their model is different. We certainly have an advantage but it’s still a challenge.  

Now, as it applies to communications with our security challengers I’ve been asking for three years to talk to my counterparts and they have yet to talk to me. Now, we’ve had some, certainly, engagements since President Biden met with President Xi in San Francisco. The chairman has spoken to his counterpart. The secretary has talked to his counterpart just yesterday by phone and they’re supposed to see each other at the Shangri-La Dialogue.  

But my counterparts haven’t answered my requests now for three years. It was highlighted by Secretary Austin and then Minister Wei two years ago by name that the southern and eastern theater commander should talk to me and it was agreed, and they have still not accepted that, right?  

So from an operational commander perspective the responsibility to ensure we don’t have an accident is at the operational commander level. So for some reason they’re holding that card. We’ll see. I got another three weeks and I’m continuing to ask.  

But it’s important that we have a dialogue just to have it but we shouldn’t be so—put it this way. The dialogue itself is really not the benefit. Building a relationship if you can is the benefit. But, secondly, there’s got to be an agreement to pick up the phone. If I dial it, you know, he had better pick it up and then he better talk to me.  

I’m also confident that’s not going to happen in a time of crisis. It was proven in 2001 when we had the EP-3 mishap. That phone rang for three days before anybody picked it up.  

So I value the ability to try to build a relationship with my counterpart. I value the ability to highlight what’s important and what we can do together to prevent accidents, miscalculation. But I’m not convinced anybody’s going to let him talk to me in time of crisis and we just have to understand.  

BOIES: I think we can agree that there are many things that this country gets wrong but I also hope we can agree that one thing this country gets very, very right is in our senior military officers and we have certainly seen one of them today.  

He retires in three weeks. He is from New York. So welcome home, Admiral. 

AQUILINO: Thank you very much. Thanks, and to all of you. (Applause.) 


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