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Defense trims could limit US military's vision for Pacific pivot

The U.S. wants to look toward China, but will the restraints on defense spending limit our vision?

WASHINGTON — Budget constraints and force requirements in other regions will likely stall the Pentagon’s plans to beef up the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific and send more high-tech weaponry to deter a rising China, officials and analysts say.

DOD released its $496 billion fiscal 2015 budget request earlier this month. Due to caps imposed by Congress’ bipartisan budget deal in December, the Pentagon is requesting $45 billion less than what it anticipated it would need to carry out the national defense strategy when it submitted last year’s budget request. DOD also released its Future Years Defense Program, which calls for $115 billion more in military spending than current law allows over the course of the next five years.

 

“Right now, the pivot [to the Pacific] is being looked at again, because candidly it can’t happen [due to budget pressures],” Katrina McFarland, the assistant secretary of defense for acquisition, said at an Aviation Week conference in Arlington, Va. on March 4, according to multiple news reports.

Later that day, McFarland issued the following statement through a spokeswoman in what appeared to be an attempt to walk back her remarks.

“When I spoke at a conference, I was asked a question about the budget ... and how it relates to our pivot to Asia. I was reiterating what Secretary Hagel said last week: that the shift in focus to the Asia-Pacific requires us to ‘adapt, innovate, and make difficult budgetary and acquisition decisions to ensure that our military remains ready and capable.’ That’s exactly what we’ve done in this budget [proposal]. The rebalance to Asia can and will continue.”

“[McFarland] obviously was disciplined and retracted those remarks,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said at a budget hearing the next day.

Adm. Samuel Locklear, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said the resources currently at his disposal are insufficient to meet operational requirements.

“The ability for the services to provide the type of maritime coverage, the air coverage of some of the key elements that we’ve historically needed in this part of the world for crisis response, have not been available to the level that I would consider acceptable risk [due to recent budget cutbacks],” he told lawmakers March 5.

During a March 4 budget briefing at the Pentagon, defense officials disputed the notion that the strategic shift will stall.

“We are going forward with a variety of issues that aren’t primarily financial [including realigning forces in the region]. We have a fairly robust shipbuilding program, averaging about nine a year, which over the long term will contribute [to the pivot]. So I think the budget [request] definitely supports the rebalance, and we’re not reconsidering it,” Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale told reporters.

But Todd Harrison, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent think tank in Washington, said there’s reason to doubt that DOD will be able to fully resource the pivot, given ongoing fiscal constraints and other strategic commitments.

“It’s coming close to the limits on what you can do in terms of scaling back the size of the department while still trying to increase our presence in the Asia-Pacific region. You know, fundamentally one of the conflicts that’s going to arise within this [defense] strategy is that we’re trying to increase our presence in the Asia-Pacific region while maintaining our presence in the Middle East and in Europe and other areas, and I don’t think we can actually do all of those things in the long run with less funding,” he said.

Republican hawks share those concerns.

“The administration has committed to a rebalance to the Asia-Pacific while also sustaining a heightened alert posture in the Middle East and North Africa … A declining defense budget, reduction in troop strength and force structure, and diminished readiness suggests that we can’t do both, or if we do, we do so at an increased risk to our forces and their missions,” Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said at a hearing March 5.

Doubts about the pivot are not confined to political and military circles in Washington. America’s Asian allies also question whether the shift to their neighborhood will continue. In the face of continuing Chinese belligerence and North Korean unpredictability, many countries in the region are increasing their defense spending and buying new weapons platforms even as they encourage the U.S. to play a more active role in the area and hope the Pentagon moves more of its forces there.

Christine Wormuth, the deputy undersecretary of defense for Strategy, Plans and Force Development, acknowledged the problem at a March 10 conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I’m well aware that there is concern in the region about whether we will be able to sustain the rebalance. We hear those messages as well. And part of why we’re as engaged talking to countries in that region is to assure them that even in the face of some greater fiscal austerity than we’ve seen in the past decade, we are very committed to that region,” she told attendees.

The fate of the rebalance may ultimately depend on events elsewhere in the world, according to Harrison.

“[DOD] would favor continuing the pivot to the Pacific, but reality and the facts and the situation on the ground may draw you back to the Middle East, or to Europe for that matter, regardless of what your intentions are,” he said. “There’s a significant possibility [that the rebalance will be scaled back], and that will be driven by external events like what we’ve seen in Syria and what’s happening right now in Ukraine. World events can cause you to shift your focus in a way that you didn’t intend.”

The Ukraine crisis appears to have done just that. In the wake of Russia annexing Crimea, America’s NATO allies fear further aggression.

“The old idea of NATO … predicated on a Europe that no longer has any threats — that, unfortunately, has turned out, with the actions we’ve seen against Ukraine, no longer [applies],” Estonian President Toomas Ilves said on March 18 during a joint news conference with Vice President Joe Biden in Warsaw.

The U.S. has tried to reassure its regional allies by deploying 12 F-16s to Poland and augmenting American involvement in NATO’s Baltic air policing program. The Navy also sent another destroyer to the region and kept the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea longer than planned.

“We’re exploring a number of additional steps to increase the pace and scope of our military cooperation, including rotating U.S. forces to the Baltic region to conduct ground and naval exercises, as well as training missions,” Biden said.

Some say the future of the pivot is in Congress’ hands.

Locklear told lawmakers that the pivot is under way, but he questions whether it will maintain its momentum.

“If you come to my headquarters, we’re moving forward with the aspects of rebalance. I mean, we’re working hard on the alliances, on the exercises that underpin them. We’re moving our force structure into places we need to. The real question is whether or not the force that Congress will eventually buy to give us, is it adequate for the security environment that’s changing?” he said. “Whether or not we can resource to meet the challenges and remain the preeminent guarantor of security in the Pacific area, I think that’s the question.”

Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations, told members of the House Armed Services Committee last week that eliminating an aircraft carrier and a naval air wing from the fleet, which would be necessitated by sequestration, would put the pivot in jeopardy.

“The Asia-Pacific is important, and we are rebalancing toward it. [But] if you go from 11 to 10 carriers, you exacerbate that what is already a very difficult [force requirement] problem to the point where … the deterrence factor goes down dramatically when you have gaps [like that],” he said.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and other senior defense officials have repeatedly warned that a failure to eliminate sequestration would result in “unacceptable risks” to America’s ability to execute its defense strategy.

But many analysts are doubtful that Congress will give the Pentagon the money it says it needs.

“I don’t think there is the will in the Congress to increase the defense budget for a bit, number one. And I don’t think you have a president pressing them hard to do so ... I’m not necessarily sure [the sequestration cap] is even a floor [for how low the defense budget will go],” Barry Pavel, director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, said at a conference hosted by the Atlantic Council March 5.

“I think DOD has made the best case they can [but] I think you’re going to continue to have a disconnect in Congress that’s been shockingly, in my mind, united on both sides of the aisle, saying even if they don’t like it, they don’t see a way out of [the Budget Control Act],” according to Maren Leed, a senior analyst at CSIS. “So I personally would be surprised if any of that [desired budget increase] is achieved. So what else can [Pentagon leaders] do? They can keep talking [but] I don’t think it will matter.”

harper.jon@stripes.com
Twitter: @JHarperStripes

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