The centerpiece of the Obama Administration’s new defense strategy is described as a “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region. It is remarkable that one of the most significant strategic decisions of the past quarter century, the decision to abandon a two ocean, two war approach in favor of a concentration on the Asia-Pacific region took place without a public debate or even a set of Congressional hearings. The United States has maintained a two ocean strategy for more than a century. With almost nothing more than the stroke of a pen, the Obama Administration overturned that history.
Having made a major strategic leap into the unknown, one would have expected to see significant changes in force posture, basing and even technology programs that reflect the nature of this region in terms of unique geography, threats and relationships with allies. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
In practical terms, the trumpeted pivot seems all noise and no substance. The U.S. had already beefed up its presence in the Asia-Pacific region including the expansion of the U.S. military base on Guam, the forward basing there of nuclear attack submarines and the stationing of a wing of F-22 Raptors in Alaska. Overall, the proportion of the Navy’s ships that will be focused on the region is slated to remain the same as before, about a third of the current fleet. There are no plans to shift significant elements of the surface fleet, such as a carrier battle group, from an East Coast homeport to the West Coast. The biggest changes to the U.S. force posture proposed in the new strategy are, first, the basing of four Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) in Singapore and, second, the rotational deployment of a relatively small number of Marines to Darwin, Australia.
If the Asia-Pacific region is the new focus of U.S. strategy, why is the focus of U.S deployments of theater missile defenses in Europe? The administration is pursuing forward basing of four Aegis missile defense-capable destroyers in Rota, Spain. Where is the parallel deployment to defend South Korea, Japan or Taiwan? What about Aegis Ashore which is currently slated only to be deployed in Europe? The only current nuclear and ballistic missile threat by a rogue state is from North Korea. China has hundreds of conventionally-armed ballistic missiles deployed opposite Taiwan. Yes, the Japanese have Aegis capable ships and are working with the United States on an advanced version of the Standard Missile 3, the Block IIA, but that is not the same as deploying robust theater missile defenses to protect the region. The new defense budget actually reduces money for procurement of theater missile defense interceptors and radars. How is this supportive of the grand pivot?
Numbers of ships and aircraft does not tell the whole story. Reports of war games conducted by the Pentagon of possible conflicts in the Asia-Pacific region raise serious concerns about the sufficiency of U.S. stockpiles of missiles, rockets and bombs to deal with a big adversary such as China. The U.S. may not have to match China ship for ship or fighter for fighter because of the superiority of our platforms, but that will not matter if ours run out of ammunition.
The Obama Administration has leaned forward somewhat when it comes to foreign military sales in the region. It is looking to provide the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Japan as well as Australia and, in the future, India. An advanced version of the F-15 is competing against the F-35 to be South Korea’s new multi-role fighter. On Taiwan, the administration made a bad decision, choosing to upgrade that nation’s older F-16s rather than sell it new ones. Overall, U.S. allies will have new capabilities to help support both self-defense and regional security cooperation.
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