Three Tests For The Pivot To Asia

The hallmark of the Obama Administration’s new defense strategy is the so-called pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. The administration argued that such a move was necessitated by the growing importance of the Asia-Pacific region economically and politically, the presence in the region of the only potential peer competitor to the U.S., China and because of the host of unresolved regional security issues and challenges.

Almost from the start, critics were savaging the plan. In particular, they focused on the administration’s seeming unwillingness to put its money (and force structure) where its strategy was. The new strategy envisioned only relatively modest redeployments of forces. Four Littoral Combat Ships would be sent to Singapore. A Marine Expeditionary Unit of some 2,500 personnel would be deployed to Northern Australia gradually over a period of years. The Navy would ship some ten percent of its fleet — about 25 ships total — to the Pacific region. The Air Force would send a few more airplanes to Guam. These steps do not demonstrate a serious commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. Rather they are a demonstration of indifference or even weakness.

There are three basic tests of any administration’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific region (Governor Romney, are you listening?) The first is the deployment of additional major U.S. forces from all three services forward into the Western Pacific. We should turn Guam, the surrounding islands and Japan into the equivalent of the role Great Britain served in World War Two. This means creating a large, integrated ISR network across the region, one capable of detecting, tracing and targeting missile, air and surface threats. It also means investing heavily in a full range of defensive measures, active and passive, to ensure that U.S. forces can survive a large scale first strike and continue to operate air and land forces under attack. If we are not serious about operating forward under fire, we should just walk away from the region.

The second test is a serious investment in platforms and weapons systems of particular use in Asia-Pacific scenarios. This means a larger Navy and, in particular, more nuclear attack submarines. It also means an ironclad commitment to a new bomber program. Actually, what is needed is a true family of systems that includes a penetrating capability, a standoff missile platform and even a large-air-to-air missile carrier. In addition, there is a need for a significant increase in acquisition of the types of munitions we would need for conflicts in the region. These include not only long-range standoff, air-to-ground weapons but also advanced systems for suppressing air defenses and taking out long-range ISR systems, and even new anti-surface warfare and anti-submarine weapons. Finally, the U.S. needs to invest in new generation electronic warfare capabilities. The Next Generation Jammer is one of these. But if we are going to defeat advanced A2/AD threats then we will require penetrating jammers and new cyber offensive weapons.

The third test is the presence of Army ground forces forward in places other than South Korea. If we are going to ask our allies in the region to stick with us as the threat grows, we will need to demonstrate that we have skin in the game. That is the main reason the NATO Alliance held together for more than fifty years. The presence of U.S. Marines on Okinawa has long served this function, among others. We cannot ask those in the region to bear all the risk.