Many observers expect the incoming Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, to be focused on reining in spending and cutting expenses at the Pentagon. However, it is possible that the focus of Secretary Panetta’s time in office may be devoted to an entirely different agenda. In his written responses to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee, the nominee made a point of stressing the growing threat posed by China’s military modernization. As the outgoing director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Panetta knows perhaps better than anyone in the Obama Administration how serious that threat is becoming. China’s military modernization is focused on anti-access and area capabilities that can only be directed against the United States. These capabilities include anti-ship ballistic missiles, advanced strike aircraft, so-called triple digit surface-to-air missiles, cyber attack, long-range and space-based sensors and space denial (ASAT) weapons. Panetta all but named China as the problem of the near future when he said that U.S. forces will have to face adversaries armed with air defense systems, long-range ballistic missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles.
Given this view of the emerging threat it is not surprising that Panetta would support his predecessor, Robert Gates’ efforts to invest in advanced aerospace and naval capabilities. Responding to one question, Panetta specifically declared his commitment to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. “I believe it is important that we transition to a fifth generation tactical fighter capability as soon as practical.” Panetta appeared also to concur with Gates on the need to modernize U.S. long-range strike and surveillance capabilities, heavy lift and sea and land-based theater missile defenses.
Without question, the new Secretary of Defense will face an enormous challenge in pursuing an ambitious modernization program in a tight budget environment. Undoubtedly he will look for ways of saving money through greater efficiencies, reduced overhead and cutting health care expenses. Ultimately, he must recognize that as the United States exits from Iraq and draws down its forces in Afghanistan that the Pentagon, the administration and the nation will face the need to choose between reducing its current emphasis on counter-insurgency and low intensity operations in favor of modernizing high end forces to deal with the “China threat” or the risk of strategic irrelevance in the region of the world that will dominate economics and politics in the 21st century.
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