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How to Operationalize the Quad

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Trans-Pacific View

How to Operationalize the Quad

Through deepening maritime partnerships, the Quad nations can amplify their mutual naval power in the Indo-Pacific.

How to Operationalize the Quad
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Logan C. Kellums

In his Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, U.S. President Joe Biden states, “When we strengthen our alliances, we amplify our power as well as our ability to disrupt threats before they reach our shores.” The word “shores” denotes the historical importance of the maritime environment to the United States’ national security. Within this domain, alliances and partnerships, spanning from the support of the French fleet at Yorktown during the Revolutionary War to modern-day counterpiracy task forces, have served to defend the United States and its interests.

Today, cooperation in the maritime domain carries increased importance given the security situation in the Indo-Pacific. Over the past two decades, China has built the world’s largest navy, coast guard, and maritime militia, a combined force of over 700 ships. It has used this force to illegally expand its territory and increasingly threaten a free and open Indo-Pacific. Lack of U.S. shipbuilding capacity, budget constraints, and wide-ranging global security responsibilities have and will continue to prevent the United States from preserving freedom of the seas on its own. The vastness of the Indo-Pacific, an area encompassing over half of the globe, exacerbates these shortfalls.   

The solution to these challenges lies hidden within Advantage at Sea, the latest tri-service maritime strategy (TSMS) published by the U.S. naval services – the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.  The strategy declares allies and partners “an enduring asymmetric advantage over our rivals.” Additionally, it advances the idea that, when “acting with unity of effort, like-minded nations generate enormous power to modify” and “deter malign behavior in the maritime domain.” There is a maturing partnership within the Indo-Pacific that has the capacity to achieve this goal. While not explicitly mentioned in the TSMS, operationalizing the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the Quad, is critical to ensuring maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, and the naval services must act now to advance this partnership. 

The Quad, an informal initiative between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, has been plagued by fits and starts since its inception over a decade ago. Improving Quad cooperation and interoperability in the maritime domain will require dedicated alignment between the U.S. Departments of State, Homeland Security, and Defense, as well as commitment from all Quad nations. Fortunately, the current administration has placed a high priority on expanding the Quad, evidenced by Biden hosting the first meeting of the heads of state of the Quad nations in just his second month in office.

The virtual summit resulted in the “The Spirit of the Quad,” a joint statement from the Quad leaders reaffirming each nation’s commitment to the partnership. Maritime security featured prominently in the statement with the nations pledging to prioritize “the role of international law in the maritime domain.” Despite the optimism emanating from the summit, solidifying diplomatic ties between the Quad nations will take time. In the interim, the U.S. naval services can play a significant role in laying the groundwork for greater collaboration amongst the Quad to improve maritime security in the Indo-Pacific.  

Short-Term Goals (1-2 years) 

The naval services must capitalize on the diplomatic momentum surrounding the Quad by building upon existing maritime security-focused programs. By expanding bilateral and multilateral agreements across all Quad nations, the naval services can achieve early victories in assuring the international rules-based order in the maritime domain.

First, the naval services must work to improve maritime domain awareness (MDA) for Quad nations. In October 2020, the United States and India signed a geospatial intelligence sharing agreement which could be expanded to all Quad members. This would immediately allow each nation to better defend against illegal activities without appearing overly provocative to other nations. Separately, the naval services should conduct joint activities among the coast guards of the Quad nations. A joint sail event within the exclusive economic zones of the Quad countries would improve MDA as well as enforce international laws, such as countering illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU). The optics of such cooperation could serve to strengthen the resolve of regional nations and build trust by reinforcing the legitimacy of international maritime law.   

Second, the naval services must solidify Quad naval exercise participation. MALABAR 2020 represented only the second time in 24 iterations that all Quad members participated in the annual exercise specifically designed to improve interoperability. Regularizing MALABAR participation by all Quad nations ensures increased cooperation and could spur relationship formalization. MALABAR should also incorporate the U.S. Marine Corps and like-services of Quad nations to enhance security capability while adding depth to the exercise. Embarking high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS) aboard U.S. or other Quad nation vessels and subsequently conducting integrated live-fire training is but one example of how the Marines could expand the exercise.   

Finally, the naval services must improve coordination efforts between the Quad’s navies to leverage their collective strength in numbers and maximize effectiveness and operational reach. The Quad navies should coordinate the timing and locations of their port visits, using them to enhance regional maritime diplomacy. Additionally, the Quad must expand relationships through officer exchange opportunities, especially at resident schoolhouses and training centers, and integrating liaison officers into command staffs, especially on those deploying in the region (such as U.S. Marine Expeditionary Units).   

Mid-Term Goals (3-4 years) 

While short-term efforts focus on combined exercises, MDA, and training, mid-term goals should focus on further operationalizing elements of the Quad in the maritime domain, specifically to “meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas.” The navies of the Quad should come together to conduct operational joint sail events to include freedom of navigation operations throughout the region. Additionally, the Quad could bolster maritime security by signing mutual ship-riding agreements between the U.S. Coast Guard and all Quad nations. The Coast Guard currently “employs 11 bilateral ship-rider agreements with Pacific Island Forum nations throughout Oceania,” which allows greater interoperability between the coast guards. A comparable agreement across the Quad would similarly improve coast guard integration. Finally, the naval services should work to establish Quad Centers of Excellence to develop and experiment with joint concepts and doctrine, train and educate leaders, and improve overall Quad interoperability. 

Long-Term Goal (4-8 years) 

Building on the above short and mid-term achievements, the Quad nations should work toward a structured and sustainable maritime coalition by developing a regional maritime task force. The coalition’s objectives would be to preserve freedom of the seas in the region, to ensure the territorial waters of sovereign nations are not infringed upon, and to expand maritime domain awareness for the participating nations. 

Establishing the right command and control architecture in any coalition task force is difficult and often contentious. Thus, Quad nations should emulate a successful and proven model such as the Joint Interagency Task Force-South to ensure ample representation and expertise from all parties. By combining resources and expertise, a regional maritime coalition would provide the quantity and quality of assets required to maintain “free and open access to the oceans” of the Indo-Pacific. Additionally, it would create a more efficient means to achieve mutually shared objectives of partner nations, ultimately gaining the trust and confidence of smaller island nations nervous about their territorial integrity. Such a regional maritime task force would send a powerful message to friends and would-be aggressors throughout this vast region that a group of like-minded, democratic nations is fully committed to upholding the existing rules and norms of maritime governance. Finally, a formal maritime coalition would provide a core framework to coordinate, or expand, with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Oceania, and European allies operating in the region such as the United Kingdom and France.    


During his March 9, 2021 congressional testimony, Admiral Phillip Davidson, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, explained that the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific is becoming increasingly unfavorable to the United States and its partners. He stated, “Absent a convincing deterrent, the People’s Republic of China will be emboldened to take action to undermine the rules based international order.” His testimony, followed by the first meeting of all Quad principals three days later, demonstrates a sense of urgency. 

The U.S. naval services, working in cooperation with their Quad counterparts, can achieve the strategic effect envisioned by the TSMS, and have the potential to lay the foundation for future Quad initiatives in other areas. By expanding upon existing coordination, exercises, and cooperation to achieve early victories, the naval services can establish the needed momentum to move the informal Quad initiative into a formal Quad maritime coalition. If successful in this endeavor, the naval services will serve as the impetus to meet Biden’s objective to “work alongside fellow democracies across the globe to deter and defend against aggression from hostile adversaries.” 

The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Coast Guard or the U.S. government.