Back in 2009, as part of its new security strategy, the Obama Administration announced its intention to focus more of its diplomatic and security energies on the Asia-Pacific region. As explained by one of the architects of this strategic pivot, then-assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell,
“The “strategic pivot” or rebalancing launched four years ago, is premised on the recognition that the lion’s share of the political and economic history of the 21st century will be written in the Asia -Pacific region. To benefit from this shift in global geopolitical dynamism and sustainably grow its economy, the United States is building extensive diplomatic, economic, development, people-to-people and security ties with the region.”
In 2009 this all seemed to make sense. The incoming Administration was confident that it could forge a new relationship with Russia, a “reset.” The few irritants to cordial U.S/European relations with Russia, such as deployment of missile defenses in Eastern Europe, could be dealt with. The new President also was determined to extricate the nation and the military from the unpopular conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
An essential piece of the strategic pivot was a rebalancing of U.S. military power from a legacy Europe/Middle East orientation towards the Asia-Pacific region. This didn’t seem to be much of a problem given the Administration’s foreign policy. Thus, peace would reign in Europe and the Middle East and U.S. forces could be reapportioned towards the new “Old World.”
So much for predicting the future. Today the United States finds itself focusing not on the Asia-Pacific region but back to Europe and the Middle East. While China may constitute the future threat to U.S. security and that of our allies, as General Joseph Dunford opined in his hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Russia is the number one threat today. U.S. air power has conducted tens of thousands of sorties over Iraq and Syria in the past year alone, continuing a pattern of operations in the region that began with the first Gulf War nearly a quarter of a century ago.
The reality is that there never really was a rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region, at least in terms of rebalancing military forces. Yes, the Administration did achieve its goal of having 60 percent of Navy ships deployed in that region. But this was achieved by decommissioning more ships from those based in the Atlantic, not by increasing the number in the Pacific. With a few exceptions there has been virtually no substantive change in the deployment of U.S. military forces to this region.
As it turns out, this may be a good thing. The Pentagon doesn’t have to figure out how to bring large Army contingents back from Asia or re-rebase Navy ships from San Diego or Pearl Harbor to Norfolk or Jacksonville. Air Force units such as F-22 squadrons that were positioned at West Coast bases can be rebased to the East Coast if necessary. The bomber and tanker fleets are inherently global.
The re-pivot to Europe is already underway. Responding to naked Russian aggression against Ukraine and overt verbal threats to its NATO allies and European friends, the U.S. military began moving forces eastward. U.S. fighters have been participating in so-called Baltic air policing missions. As part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, U.S. forces are involved in a new and robust series of training activities, exercises and rotational troop deployments in Europe. Part of a Stryker Brigade Combat Team was sent on an 1100 mile trek through six eastern NATO states. Since Russia seized Crimea, U.S. missile destroyers have been routinely patrolling the Black Sea. Plans are in place to pre-position the equipment for a U.S. Heavy Brigade Combat Team in Eastern Europe and rotate personnel to man the Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. This is nominally the U.S. contribution to NATO’s new Quick Reaction Force. In reality, it is a clear signal to Moscow of Washington’s commitment to the Alliance.
Equally important, the U.S. and NATO are beginning to build the infrastructure needed to support expanded deployments of land and air power eastward. U.S. Army engineers, largely from the National Guard, are helping to build training sites and logistics facilities across Eastern Europe. Construction of the first Aegis Ashore missile defense site in Romania is also nearing completion.
The re-pivot is not limited to Eastern Europe. The growing threats of instability in North Africa and insurgencies in the Middle East have necessitated the repositioning of U.S. and NATO forces along the Mediterranean littorals. A Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force is now permanently based in Morón, Spain. U.S. naval forces are making increased use of allied bases such as Souda Bay in Crete to support operations throughout the region. Just recently, Turkey gave permission for U.S aircraft to fly missions against ISIS from a NATO base in that country.
This is just the beginning of the re-pivot to Europe. Much more needs to be done, particularly by the Europeans themselves in order to deter Russian aggression and deal with the ongoing violence to their south and southeast. As the recent flood of refugees across the Mediterranean shows, Europe cannot stand aloof from these threats. But neither can the United States.
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