Fool’s Errand: America’s Pivot to Asia

Recent Features

Features | Politics | Security

Fool’s Errand: America’s Pivot to Asia

As the U.S. stares down a “fiscal cliff”, some are arguing for an increase in defense spending to support America’s pivot to Asia. It could however create more problems than it solves.

Turning around a modern naval warship at sea is a slow and difficult process. Turning around whole fleets of warships, aircraft carriers and other air and naval forces, and reorienting defense spending for weapons systems that are typically planned decades in advance, is a lot harder – especially when it’s being done in the context of a widely expected downturn in U.S. military outlays. But that’s what the administration of President Barack Obama is trying to do with the much-touted “pivot” from the Middle East to Asia.

It’s a fool’s errand: far too costly, and politically counterproductive. As an example, already questions are being raised about the $396 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, developed to be the U.S. military’s fighter jet of the future. But the F-35 was designed for a time when the Pentagon was focused on NATO and the Middle East, and according to the New York Times, the F-35 is now “facing concerns about its relatively short flight range as possible threats grow from Asia.”

Even if, somehow, Obama and his new national security team – with a new secretary of state, a new secretary of defense, and a new CIA director in 2013 – can cobble together the cash for a military buildup in Asia, the result of the effort may be to create the very adversary it’s intended to balance. As noted in a March report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service: “The perception among many that the ‘rebalancing’ is targeted against China could strengthen the hand of Chinese hard-liners. Such an impression could also potentially make it more difficult for the United States to gain China’s cooperation on a range of issues.” And, of course, more expensive.

So far, the administration has taken only baby steps, mostly symbolic, toward an Asian buildup, by rotating contingents of up to 2,500 Marines in Australia, renewing aid to Indonesian paramilitary forces, deploying the U.S. Navy to Singapore, and strengthening military cooperation with the Philippines. But its redoubled interest in finding partners in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia, the third tour of the region since June for Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and President Obama’s visit to Myanmar – plus a series of strategic reviews by U.S. national security agencies – signal a vast escalation to come.

If the money is there. As yet, the administration hasn’t put its money where its mouth is: For example, last year Congress zeroed out funding for military construction to expand facilities in Guam. And in an era of trillion-dollar deficits, few in Washington believe that American voters will support greater defense spending if it means cuts to entitlement spending programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Project On Government Oversight, is a veteran military budget analyst. Asked whether the United States can put together enough money to fund a buildup in Asia, Wheeler says no. “It’s not going to happen,” he says. “It’s that simple. The military budget is going down.” The Pentagon, Wheeler says, cannot afford either more ships and planes or what some people believe is a quick-fix solution, namely, greater use of high-tech, remote-warfare drones, other unmanned vehicles, and long-range options. “It’s all too expensive,” he says.

Sometimes, it appears, administration officials make a little too much of the pivot. In August, Ashton Carter, the U.S. deputy secretary of defense, said in a speech in New York that “we will have a net increase of one aircraft carrier, four destroyers, three Zumwalt destroyers, ten Littoral Combat Ships, and two submarines in the Pacific in the coming years.” In October, Carter said in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington that the United States is prepared to spend what it takes, and that other assets will be redirected from the Middle East. “With our allies and partners, I think you’ll see, we are, in fact, across the Asia-Pacific region able to invest to sustain peace and prosperity. In other words, we are not just talking the talk, we are walking the walk. And I’d ask if you don’t believe us, to just watch our steps over coming months and years, and you’ll see us implement the rebalance,” he said. “By 2020, we will have shifted 60 percent of our naval assets to the Pacific. … Naval assets that will be released from Afghanistan and the Middle East include surface combatants, amphibious ships, and, eventually, aircraft carriers.” But an independent study concluded that the United States already has nearly 54 percent of its fleet home-ported in Asia and the Pacific, and that Carter’s touted increase would only raise that number to 57 percent, not 60 percent.

Diplomacy, of course, is cheap. And a big part of the U.S. pivot will rely on military aid and support for partner countries in the region and strengthened alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia. But plenty of big-ticket items are involved. According to the CRS study, the United States eliminated a planned cut in the number of aircraft carrier task forces, plans to expand the Navy’s purchases of Aegis-class destroyers and Littoral Combat Ships, build a 33-vessel flotilla for the Marines, and continue production of attack submarines, equipped with a new, high-tech cruise missile.

Even if the looming “fiscal cliff,” which includes automatic cuts in Pentagon spending of up to $600 billion over the next decade – on top of an existing, planned $487 billion reduction – is avoided, there are plenty of questions about whether all this can be sustained. Just maintaining U.S. force levels in Japan and South Korea will be increasingly costly, and there is concern in both countries that the United States might ask them to share more of the cost of those deployments.

In Washington, there is no shortage of calls to expand the navy and the air force to prepare for a stepped-up presence in Asia and the Pacific. Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, has written, “The United States must move in the direction of the 346-ship fleet recommended by the bipartisan Quadrennial Defense Review independent panel or face the danger of slipping from the present 284 combatant ships to a fleet of just 250 warships. Otherwise, it will lack the balance of power needed to credibly control — or at least defend — access to the sea lines of communication in and around the South China Sea, through which about half of all global maritime commerce passes.” Cronin recently told the Washington Times that the Obama administration has “articulated the pivot without considering the real resources that it would require.”

Wheeler agrees. “The idea of a 300-ship navy is a delusion,” he says.

Members of a coalition of conservative, pro-defense think tanks called Defending Defense – including the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Foreign Policy Initiative – accuse the Obama administration of massively underfunding its pivot to Asia.

A pair of analysts writing for the Heritage Foundation say that at a minimum the United States must greatly expand the navy, air force and marine corps. with a long list of costly items: a new, long-range next-generation bomber, reopening production of F-22 combat aircraft, slowing the retirement of 300 aircraft from fighter squadrons, and building a wide assortment of naval ships, aircraft carriers, and submarines. Without significant increases in military outlays, they write, “The Obama Administration’s Asia Pivot represents a strategy of hope: a hope that large-scale wars are a thing of the past; a hope that America’s allies will do more; and a hope that fewer resources do not jeopardize the lives of American soldiers. The much-vaunted Asia Pivot represents a shift in focus—not in forces.”

During the just-concluded presidential campaign in the United States, Mitt Romney accused President Obama of cutting defense spending too sharply, and Obama shot back that Romney was seeking “$2 trillion in additional military spending that the military hasn’t asked for.” Now that the campaign is over, and America is faced with intense fiscal pressures, what is the likelihood that the White House will ask for more funding for its pivot to Asia and, if it does, what are the chances that Congress will go along. According to Douglas Macgregor, a retired army colonel who has written frequently on facilities from defense spending, “Increased defense spending to expand and modernize military Alaska to Guam won’t make much sense to voters who fear the country is in a fiscal ‘free fall.’ Moreover, there is no reason to assume lawmakers and the next President will cooperate at all after November.”