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Home : Media : Speeches / Testimony
NEWS | July 20, 2023

Adm. John C. Aquilino, Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, discussion at the Aspen Security Forum

U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Public Affairs


Courtney Kube  00:25

Hello. Alright, let's try this again. He's still the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. Still a Naval Academy graduate. He flew F-14s and F-18s. He's a graduate of Top Gun... I know right? He's, he became the Commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet in May of 2018, and he's been the Commander of PACOM since April 30th of 2021. So, Admiral Aquilino, welcome.


ADM John Aquilino   01:03

Ms. Courtney, thank you very much. It's great to see you.


Courtney Kube  01:07

And, I also just, I know this isn't necessarily in his background, but I just want to run you through, this is a smart audience. But, I just want to run you guys through some of the stats about PACOM to give you a sense of how huge his job is. It is, more than half the world's population lives in the Indo-Pacific Command. Two thirds of the entire global economy flows through the region. There's over 35 countries, seven of the world's 10 largest armies in INDOPACOM, five of the world's declared nuclear nations, and some pretty sophisticated Navy. So, he's got a pretty big job, a lot of news and I'm going to start with the news out of your region today. A U.S. soldier is in North Korean custody, tonight, for crossing the demarcation line, the DMZ, willfully, according to U.S. officials. Who is he and what happened?


ADM John Aquilino   01:57

First, let me say thanks to the Aspen leadership for having me tonight. It's truly an honor. I also would like to welcome all of the local community that's here tonight. I know this is a special event and I'm honored to be here. You know, the story hasn't really built much more than what's been reported. So he's a private from the U.S. Army. And again, it was willingly and it was unauthorized. He made a run across the militarized zone in the Joint Security Area. He was picked up by the North Koreans, and we've had no contact at this point, but we're still doing our investigations to find out exactly what happened.


Courtney Kube  02:41

Is that the UN Command that's investigating that then?


ADM John Aquilino   02:44

It is U.S. Forces Korea, forward-stationed, under General Paul LaCamera that is doing all the work right now.


Courtney Kube  02:52

When you say there hasn't been contact you haven't had contact with these, the U.S. Soldier, but has there been communication between the U.S. and the North Korean in some capacity over this?


ADM John Aquilino   03:00

Not that I'm tracking yet.


Courtney Kube  03:03

What, there's some reports that he had some sort of a disciplinary action incident and he was supposed to leave the country and he took off out of the airport. Was somebody supposed to be watching him to make sure he got on the plane to leave Korea? Was there some sort of a breakdown in security here?


ADM John Aquilino   03:18

Yeah, I don't think we know enough quite yet to find that out. But I think those facts will come out in the next few days as we dig into it.


Courtney Kube  03:27

Is there any indication that this young man was a sympathizer for North Korea and that's why he took off?


ADM John Aquilino   03:34

Again we're gonna, we're gonna look into that. I've gotten no reports of that.


Courtney Kube  03:40

Also today, for the first time since about the 1980s, the U.S. sent a nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine to South Korea, the USS Kentucky. This is capable of launching a ballistic missile and this is very uncommon, and it was announced a couple months ago that this was likely to happen, but why send it there now?


ADM John Aquilino   03:59

Well you say why send it there now. As military officers, we do a lot of planning. If somebody thinks we said today, "hey, go pop that thing up and send it to North, to the South Korean port of Busan." That's just not what happened. That said, it's critical for United States to demonstrate all forms of our national power to support our alliances. We have a mutual defense treaty alliance with both Japan and Korea, and that means the entire force, United States armed force is ready to support those alliances. So demonstrating our willingness and our capabilities to our allies is reassuring. You know last week we flew a B-52 Bomber over the Korean Peninsula, with South Korean fighters attached as escorts, along with U.S. fighters. Prior to arriving there, the Japanese joined up with a Bomber. So, we assure our allies and partners often and this is just one of those demonstrations.


Courtney Kube  05:01

Do you expect that North Korea will respond or is that why, I mean they fired off some sort of a missile today. Is that, do you think that was in response to this visit?


ADM John Aquilino   05:08

Two missiles today. We could make some assessment that their unhappiness with that visit could have been the cause for this event. That said they've been shooting missiles so frequently that I can't figure out what the their justification is, other than their intent is to destabilize the region and threaten the allies and partners that we have in the theater. And I guess what I what I would say is the strategy is just not winning for them. What I mean by that is the alliances and partnerships in the regions are getting tighter. Just last week, General Milley came out to Hawaii, with General LaCamera, and we hosted a trilateral event with our Korean counterparts and our Japanese counterparts. So, the uniformed members of Japan, Korea and the United States are working together more frequently and more easily. The leadership in both of our countries, not too long ago, President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida got together and I thank them both for their willingness to take political risk to ensure that they can defend their nations. That trilateral relationship is important. It doesn't come without some long historical issues between the two, but the leadership in Japan and Korea right now, very, very impressive for what they're doing to defend their nations.


Courtney Kube  06:42

North Korea has launched an unprecedented number of missiles in the last year or so; 2022, 2023. I mean, I know it's hard to say what their motivation is but like, what do you think their... Kim Jong Un's end game is with all these launches?


ADM John Aquilino   06:57

I think his end game is to remain in power.


Courtney Kube  07:02

And what about the one recently, ICBM, solid fuel, I know that you guys would like to talk about why that's so concerning, but, and I'm sure our audience already knows this because like I said, you guys are pretty smart. But when you have a solid-fuel rocket, there's less warning to others that it's potentially going to be launched off, because they can take it out to launch pad, they can stand it up and they can fire it. You don't have a day or two of gassing the thing up before you fire it. So the fact that they now have demonstrated solid fuel ICBM, is that a game changer? And is there going to be some sort of a U.S. response in some way to that?


ADM John Aquilino   07:37

So, I don't think it's a game changer. KJU is clearly working to advance his missile delivery capabilities. He's been doing it now consistently for the past, almost two years. That is a goal that allows him to present a position of strength that he believes will enable the Kim regime to remain in place. That said that we continue to build our readiness with the forces on the Korean peninsula. To meet our responsibilities under the alliance. The forces at USFK are ready to respond. We continue to work with the other allies and partners in the region, because the capability of that missile now just doesn't threaten South Korea, or Japan, or the United States. It threatens all nations in the region, and that should be concerning for all.


Courtney Kube  08:28

Can North Korea hit the continental U.S. with a nuclear-armed ballistic missile today?


ADM John Aquilino   08:35

The capability that they've delivered and demonstrated the other day, we assess could reach the United States. The mating and all the nuclear capability is still being reviewed.


Courtney Kube  08:45

The miniaturizing the warhead, it's not clear if they've achieved that capability yet? The IAEA also said, several months ago, that they appear to have reopened this nuclear testing site. There's been a lot of talk that they might test a nuke over the last few months, but they haven't. Do you think? Are they actually going to test a nuke, and what does that mean for the region and the world if they do?


ADM John Aquilino   09:05

Boy, if I could figure out what he was going to do, like I always tell everybody, I wouldn't be here, I'd be in Vegas. Bottom line is he's made it capable such that, if he chose, he could test another nuclear weapon. Game changing? I don't think so. He's already tested seven. What does it mean to the world? Is that his nuclear capabilities, that research and development continues. Oh, by the way, at the expense of the people of North Korea, because he's investing a lot of money to build those weapons of mass destruction. And again, it's taken food off the tables of those in North Korea. And, you know, that needs to be highlighted, but will he do another nuclear test? I think he, I know he could. We'll see if he does.


Courtney Kube  09:52

Another alliance that you've talked about is the one between China and Russia. They've signed this recent "No Limits" partnership. What exactly is this partnership and have you seen any practical changes in your area since they entered into it?


ADM John Aquilino   10:09

Yeah. I don't know what this partnership is. I'll use their words. It's a no limits relationship, and we've seen a lot of things that lead us to believe that it's truly real, despite their long historical and cultural differences. Let me start by just the sheer support from the CCP for the war that did, the illegal illegitimate war, that the Russians are waging on Ukraine. That should be condemned and the PRC has not done that. Additionally, they are amplifying the propaganda that NATO, that Russians are using. Their explanation is that NATO expansion was the cause of the invasion. That is just completely falsehood. So the PRC are supportive of the Russians, that's in that information space and as it applies to Ukraine. As it goes in the Pacific, they have amplified and increased their amount of joint training, joint exercises, and joint demonstrations. Just a month ago, bombers from both Russia and China, Russian bombers landed in China, and then they flew a joint mission into the Philippine Sea towards Guam. Today, a Russian and Chinese maritime Task Force is doing a combined patrol. We'll see where that ends up, whether it's off the Aleutian Islands, whether it's in the Philippine Sea, whether it goes to Guam, whether it goes to Hawaii or whether it goes off the west coast of the United States. So, their exercises have increased, their operations have increased. I only see the cooperation getting stronger, and boy that's concerning. That's a dangerous world.


Courtney Kube  11:57

Is there any indication China is providing Russia with lethal aid that they're using in Ukraine?


ADM John Aquilino   12:03

I don't have any evidence of that at this point. We do think they are certainly supporting them. Whether it be with intelligence or other means?


Courtney Kube  12:14

What's the current U.S. military assessment for when China may invade Taiwan? We're among friends here right?


ADM John Aquilino   12:27

Well, let me start by talking about the things that the PRC, specifically President Xi Jinping, has said that shapes how we think about this. First, he has given the challenge to the Chinese military to be prepared, if required, to take Taiwan by force by 2027. Alight? Those are his words, not ours. Now, my job is to prevent that conflict, and we do that and work each and every day in order to prevent conflict. That said, if we think he's set his site to be ready by 2027, I have that mission today, we need to be ready today. And we need to get our forces in place, we need to get the right capabilities, we need to have the right partnerships, and all of those things provide a strong deterrence to ultimately prevent the conflict, which is the goal. That said, if deterrence fails, our job is to fight and win. And I am confident, I am extremely proud that the strongest military on Earth is in the United States, and a lot of its in the Pacific.


Courtney Kube  13:40

Are you, are you confident that if China were to invade Taiwan today, that you have everything that you need to be able to defend them?


ADM John Aquilino   13:50

So nobody has everything they need?


Courtney Kube  13:53

Tell me about it.


ADM John Aquilino   13:53

You show me that person. That said, there are a number of items that I've asked for, specifically, as part of the budget process. The Deputy Secretary, and the Secretary of Defense, have been clearly supportive. They are aligned to a strategy based budget focused on the China challenge, and I'm thankful for that. That said, with what we have today, I'm confident that they would fail.


Courtney Kube  14:19

What do you think could prompt President Xi to invade?


ADM John Aquilino   14:25

Once again, if I could tell you that, you know, there's a lot of things. Certainly there's some red lines that have been identified, specifically by the Chinese. If there were a declaration of independence by Taiwan, that would be a serious concern. That said, let me just start by saying the United States policy as it applies to Taiwan has not changed. We work in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act. The six assurances and the three communiques, that is, that shapes the United States policy. We don't support independence on Taiwan, but we do support the peaceful resolution of the differences of people on both sides of the strait. And that's without coercion, or action. No unilateral change to the status quo, and that's what we believe is the right place.


Courtney Kube  15:18

You said in some congressional testimony in April, that the biggest challenge facing the U.S. is the speed of urgency at which we're working because the U.S. has been at war in the Middle East for 20 years, and we need to understand how fast it's coming and we need to go faster. Are you concerned that the time to deter China is running out?


ADM John Aquilino   15:41

I would like there to be, as I stated, an increased sense of urgency to deliver the capabilities that I've asked for. To do them at a time, and a speed, that's relevant. As I said, President Xi said he wants to be ready by 2027. We certainly ought to be ready before that if we're doing our jobs. We have been in a world where we have believed that Russia was going to, peace was going to break out with Russia and there was no chance of a war in Europe. We had been living in a world where we believe that the PLA was going to integrate into the world international rules based order in a way that was responsible. That's not the world we live in. So, to be prepared and ready to live in that world, we ought to put all of our capabilities in place, our posture initiatives in place, our alliances and partnerships in place, and we ought to do that fast.


Courtney Kube  16:41

Do you think that the deterrence, frankly, not working with Russia may help your case to get, to provide you with your, I mean, you have like three and a half billion dollars in unfunded priorities. Many of which I imagine are focused on China, capabilities for China. Do you think the fact that Ukraine, that the Russia did invade, despite the efforts of deterrence, might help your case in being able to prepare faster?


ADM John Aquilino   17:02

Yeah, I think, you know, I sat and watched my counterpart, General Walters, in testimony and he got accused of not being able to deter President Putin. I think his mission was derived and tasked to ensure that NATO Alliance was strong, and that NATO was not invaded. So you can argue whether deterrence failed or not, but General Walters did some great work followed up by General Cavoli. I'm not concerned that deterrence is failing in the Pacific. That said, we want to continue to position ourselves from a position of strength, we want our allies and partners to work and operate with us, we want to have all of those partners articulate the importance of the rules based international order. There is a place for China in this world. China's not going away. That said they need to integrate into the rules based order in a way that's beneficial for all, and not specifically at the benefit of the PRC. I'll give you this example, Courtney. The Global Security Initiative is China's term, although vague and without facts, for what the new rules based order should look like. That is, you are hearing them lay the groundwork for what the rules should look like. Well, the deeds that I see look like this. Chinese spy balloon flies directly over the continental United States. If that's what the Global Security Initiative looks like, under Chinese rules, I'm pretty sure that's unacceptable to all nations. It's certainly unacceptable to the United States, and there are more examples of, you know, the say-do mismatch that we see, but we should be concerned about the way the PRC talks about the new rules based order. The second example that I have to bring up is the international tribunal that was filed by the Philippines in 2016 against the Chinese claim of all of the area inside the nine dash line, and specifically on Second Thomas Shoal. Right? The International Court determined China had no valid claim. Yet they continue to threaten the Philippines. They have discounted the international ruling, based on no fact other than they don't like the decision. So if the international rules based order, under Global Security Initiative, just means as long as the PRC likes the outcome then that's the rules, we got to all be concerned about that.


Courtney Kube  19:46

Since you brought up the Chinese spy balloon, what is the spy balloon situation in your area? I mean, do you see them often? Is China flying these all the time and they're just not going over the continental U.S. and are you shooting any of the others of them down anywhere?


ADM John Aquilino   20:03

We have not seen one since the event, and I have not shot any down.


Courtney Kube  20:09

Not yet. Not yet, but you got like a year left in the job so, you still have time.


ADM John Aquilino   20:15

I'm just trying to get through tomorrow.


Courtney Kube  20:17

Well the interview's not over yet, so... another thing that we hear a lot about, with China, is their hypersonic capabilities. Are you concerned that China's capabilities at delivering hypersonic missiles to the U.S., are they more advanced than what the U.S. has in hypersonics?


ADM John Aquilino   20:40

Let me start by saying, what we're seeing is a military buildup, second to none at the speed and rate in which it's being delivered. And it's not just hypersonic missiles, it's all capabilities. Its capabilities in the maritime environment, in the air domain, in space, hypersonics and missile capability is one part of it. So am I concerned about the buildup and the capabilities that they're delivering? Absolutely. That said, the United States continues to deliver capabilities that can ensure that we defend the homeland and protect our forces, and we'll continue to do that. So will they continue to develop? Absolutely, to include their nuclear capability. Largest buildup that we've seen, the fastest buildup in history.


Courtney Kube  21:32

Their August 2021 hypersonic test showed some real advanced capabilities. You were asked about it in testimony earlier this year. Are you confident that the U.S. has the missile defense systems that they need that they can actually knock one of those things down?


ADM John Aquilino   21:45

Well, I'm confident that the United States industry, innovation, we are developing those capabilities to ensure that we can do that.


Courtney Kube  21:53

Are you developing and fast enough?


ADM John Aquilino   21:55

Hence my point on urgency.


Courtney Kube  22:00

Do you have any contact with your Chinese counterparts?


ADM John Aquilino   22:02

I do not. Now, we invite them and I have asked to speak to my Chinese counterpart, parts, because there's more than one. The alignment is different. So, the Eastern theater commander and the Southern theater commander, for two years now, I've had a request to speak with each of them. My asks have gone either unanswered or refused. We have invited the Chinese chairman to come to our annual Chiefs of Defense conference. We're going to have that in Fiji next month. We have invited and we have not heard. We do it virtually three other times, two to three times per year. So in the two years, we've had one showing of the Chinese representation via teleconference. That's been the extent of my contact since I've been in this position.


Courtney Kube  23:01

The former STRATCOM Commander, Admiral Richard, called China's nuclear breakout breathtaking. They have three new ICBM fields. Are they modernizing faster than the U.S. and is there anything that the U.S. can do to discourage that, or is there any impact the U.S. can have on their modernization?


ADM John Aquilino   23:22

So it's critical that the U.S. continues our modernization of our strategic capabilities, and very, pretty costly, but required. It is the, bottom line, defense of this nation through strategic nuclear deterrence. That said, the Chinese are going very quickly. I don't, I'd have to go back and look and see how they equate it on a scale. Doesn't matter to me. What matters is that we modernize our force and we're ready to be able to respond if need be. I think we have, well I know we have, asked the Chinese to participate in some nuclear limitation talks, as well as with the Russians. They have not accepted that invitation either quite yet.


Courtney Kube  24:12

Has the U.S. military conducted any war games with Taiwan?


ADM John Aquilino   24:17

All of our actions, in accordance with Taiwan, are aligned with the Taiwan Relations Act. I'll just leave it there.


Courtney Kube  24:23

Doesn't the NDAA require them, require as of 2023, require that there be some war games?


ADM John Aquilino   24:30

I gotta go back and look at the language.


Courtney Kube  24:32

It's a lot, it's really long. The...


ADM John Aquilino   24:37

We will always follow the law and meet the requirements.


Courtney Kube  24:43

Are you concerned that U.S. support for Ukraine, billions of dollars in weapons and equipment that the U.S. has been sending there, that that's depleting munitions, specifically, but weapons that could go to Taiwan to help with this readiness issue?


ADM John Aquilino   24:55

Yeah, not at this point, Courtney. The United States is a global power, and I'd argue that after Ukraine invasion, invasion of Ukraine, we actually might be the only global power. So we can walk and chew gum at the same time. It's critically important that we support Ukraine. Strategically, it's critically important. And at this point, there has been nothing pulled out of my theater, that limit me to do my job.


Courtney Kube  25:25

When you say walk and chew gum, is that a military way of saying that you can fight two conflicts at the same time? Like if China were to invade today, the U.S. could support in some way.


ADM John Aquilino   25:33

I think it's, it's the way to say that as a global power, we can meet our global responsibilities.


Courtney Kube  25:40

One thing that's surprising to me about the Taiwan versus in the Ukraine, all these weapons, is Taiwan has like a 19, there's like $19 billion in weapons that are backlogged, that have been earmarked to go to Taiwan, that are just sitting and having been sent. And at this point, a lot of them may not get there before 2027. So, how is it possible that with all these weapons, and specifically, munitions and long-range systems, and air defenses that Taiwan needs, how is it possible when the U.S. is sending so many of those to Ukraine, that it's not having any impact on Taiwan? It just doesn't make sense.


ADM John Aquilino   26:11

Yeah, there's some different capabilities. Out of that $19 billion, large chunk of that is F-16s that they have purchased. So again, at this point, like I said, I havn't seen any impact. The capabilities in some cases are different for the Pacific problem set than the over land problem set that's happening right now. But you bring up a good point about the, you keep making my sense of urgency argument, and I've had much conversation with industry on how they could speed up. You know, just in time defense support is not where we need to be anymore. And so, we got to build up the defense industrial base in a way where we can meet our requirements.


Courtney Kube  26:20

So we only have a few minutes left, and I think this is going to be your favorite part of the interview. Because I feel like, your a four-star, you have this prominent job, you got like 300,000, 50,000, 80,000 people under your command, but I bet a lot of people don't know a lot about you. So let's change that right now. First off, your callsign is Lung? It's on your nametag there. Why?


ADM John Aquilino   27:17

Aquilino turns into Aqua Lung. I wish I had a better story.


Courtney Kube  27:22

I know, just for the record you should make up a better story than that for the next time. Like something cool about saving someone by sticking a straw in their lung or something. I don't even know if that's a thing. Do, you were a Top Gun pilot? What do you think of Top Gun Maverick? Is it, do you roll your eyes at the Hollywood-ization, I'm making up words left and right up here by the way, of Top Gun? Or is it cool?


ADM John Aquilino   27:54

Oh it's cool. So certainly there's some Hollywood portions to that, but there's a whole bunch of part of that movie that's real, and I don't know if it comes out. And I'll just give you a couple of points. First, every one of those airplane scenes was an airplane flying with a U.S. Navy fighter pilot in the front seat. So that flying is all real. The dedication of those kids, I call them kids now because I'm old as dirt, but for those kids to get out there and do the mission, the dedication it takes, the hours that it takes to perfect your craft and be effective, you know that's the flying part of the scenes. If you were to look at the scenes on a U.S. aircraft carrier, those kids are killing themselves every day. Think about being in the Middle East and on the Gulf, and working a 12 to 16 hour shift on 140 degree flight deck launching airplanes for 12 hours. I'm proud every day to be able to work with those kids, and I'm in awe. When I was younger I didn't get it, right? I feel like an old nostalgic dad. I watched those kids work, and you know, I got almost 1300 arrested landings, and every one of them took about 30 of those kids, mostly under the age of 25, to do everything they do perfectly for me to not die.


Courtney Kube  29:16

You, I wouldn't call you old but since you brought it up, do you think you'll go anywhere after PACOM? Do you think there's another Navy job for you, or what do you think is your future?


ADM John Aquilino   29:28

Let me just go back to what I said, I hope to have this job tomorrow, and we'll see. I got enough on my plate, Courtney. I got the greatest team on the planet out in PACOM. I have a great amount of partners throughout the regions, almost all the Chiefs of Defense that are out there I call friends. I got a lot of work to do before I worry about what's next.


Courtney Kube  29:51

Was there ever a point in your career where you thought, "oh, I just messed up I'm gonna get fired?"


ADM John Aquilino   29:59

Yeah, I wish there was only one. We'll wait till after I retire to have that conversation.


Courtney Kube  30:10

And just one more, since you're the head of PACOM, do you think that PACOM should stay a Navy billet, or do you think it's possible that that could go to another service?


ADM John Aquilino   30:21

Well, I think when the Secretary takes a look at however he's going to fill it, there's a ton of qualified officers. An amazing amount of talent that I've been able to work with over the past, hell I'm going on almost 40 years. So I'm confident that whatever the Secretary decides to fill behind me, will be a qualified and really amazing officer. It's a joint force, that said, there's a lot of water out there.


Courtney Kube  30:53

Admiral Aquilino, can I call you Lung?


ADM John Aquilino   30:56

Only my friends do, so yes.


Courtney Kube  30:58

Thank you so much for your time. Thank you for making the trip here.


ADM John Aquilino   31:00

Thanks, Courtney.


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