We need more transparency about the post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan Defense Department that can accept budget cuts over the next 10 years of $460 billion. And if the sequester of an additional $600 billion or more takes place beginning in fiscal 2013, would it “hollow out the force” and create “risks” because of threats we won’t be able to deter?
More sensible than much of the rhetoric was Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s Nov. 14 plea attached to a letter to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for flexibility rather than across-the-board reductions, which are part of the sequestration law.
For now, let’s focus on the so-called pivot to the Asia-Pacific area. For the past two months the area has been the center of attention for President Obama, Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
While the congressional deficit-reduction “supercommittee” was still working in October, Panetta, who was in Japan, said, “We will continue to not only maintain, but to strengthen our presence in this part of the world.”
On Nov. 22, with the possibility of sequestration looming, Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told a news conference, “As we look at areas to cut, which will be the case going forward, we’re going to make sure that we protect the capabilities that we need to maintain our presence in the Asia-Pacific.”
The Nov. 16 announcement of new six-month rotations of 250 U.S. Marines to Australian bases for joint training in 2012 — growing eventually to 2,500 Marines — highlighted the beginnings of the so-called pivot.
But it isn’t as if U.S. attention to the Iraq and Afghan wars had drained all forces away from the Pacific, where the United States has been for years as part of defense treaty obligations. As Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Keltz, the Pacific region’s director of strategic planning and policy, told reporters Nov. 16, “Quietly, in the background, we in the Pacific have been continuing to reinforce our relationships and our alliances. . . . We’ve numerically taken some things away, we’ve been quietly but very effectively increasing the capabilities that we have in the Pacific.”
For example, Keltz said, three of six F-22 stealth fighter squadrons outside the continental United States are stationed in the Pacific — a National Guard squadron in Hawaii and two in Alaska that rotate to Guam and Japan. In addition, only two C-17 large transport squadrons have been deployed outside the United States,in Alaska and Hawaii. The first Global Hawk, long-distance drone surveillance aircraft deployments were out of Guam.
Keltz also pointed out that F-22s have “leading-edge technology” that provide an “unprecedented amount of situational awareness.”
Singapore has built a facility, ChangiPier, which has been offered for U.S. Navy deployments and repair. Keltz said discussions with the Singapore government are continuing.
New base facilities are being built in Japan and Okinawa, and a major transfer of 8,000 Marines from Japan is scheduled for Guam, but the costs — more than $20 billion — has held things up. Some 31 U.S. Navy nuclear attack submarines are based in the Pacific, along with eight strategic nuclear subs. Three of the latter are normally on patrol.
Then there is the Seventh Fleet which advertises the USS George Washington on its Web site as “the world’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier” based in Yokosuka, Japan. There are also two U.S. Navy guided-missile cruisers and seven guided missile destroyers. Also forward-deployed at Sasebo, Japan, is the largest of all amphibious warfare ships; the Essex, which resembles a small aircraft carrier. It carries some 33 aircraft and 1,800 Marines with their own landing craft.
Then there are facilities in Australia and South Korea that pre-date Sept. 11, 2001..
For more than 50 years, the United States has had a substantial military presence in the Pacific, so why in an era of tightened budgets is there this new emphasis? The most obvious answer is China.
A close reading of the Defense Department’s most recent report to Congress on the Chinese military, released last August, shows why Beijing is sensitive to U.S. Pacific forces and America’s growing security alliances in the area.
“Since China’s emergence as a global economic actor, it has relied nearly exclusively on the United States as guarantor of a safe and unrestricted maritime domain,” the report states. Almost 90 percent of China’s trade goes via ship, and the report notes that even with its recent gains in naval power, China “would face great difficulty” if threats arose to its shipping through the South China Sea and Strait of Malacca, where much of its imported fuel must pass.
Chinese Rear Adm. Yin Zhuo has noted China’s participation in the anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden has “shown the Navy’s equipment is not particularly suited to blue water operations,” the report said.
Against that background, why the emphasis on the U.S. Pacific buildup? Repeatedly, American officials have said versions of what Clinton said in a Nov. 18 interview with ABC News.
Speaking of the Marines going into Australia, she said, “We act in a way that promotes our interests and our values. . . . At the top of the list is rapid response to disasters. The United States is a generous nation.”
But you can’t deter natural disasters with aircraft carriers, drones or special forces.