WASHINGTON — Sequestration or not, the Pentagon is moving ahead with the Asia-focused national security strategy announced last year by President Barack Obama.
But with major question marks hanging over the defense budget, the scope of the so-called “pivot” to Asia might depend largely on Congress.
The strategy would put a higher proportion of U.S. warships in the western Pacific, which Obama pinpointed as the key region for U.S. interests in coming decades, and where China’s military influence is growing.
On Friday, the day $46 billion in immediate cuts to the current year’s defense budget kicked in, the first of a new class of shallow water combat ships, the USS Freedom, deployed to Singapore in support of the strategy.
The same day, newly confirmed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said of the strategy that “it’s the correct policy. We have been implementing that strategic guidance over the last year. We will continue to implement that policy.”
Defense leaders have warned that if Congress didn’t compromise on a budget bill and find a way to de-trigger automatic cuts that slash the Pentagon budget by $500 billion over a decade, the strategy couldn’t be implemented.
“It is a strategy that has to have this budget to support it,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told Congress in February 2012. The Pentagon had factored in a $487 billion reduction in planned defense spending over a decade, but deeper cuts couldn’t be borne, he argued.
“Anything beyond this, we have to go back to the drawing board on the strategy,” Dempsey said.
Last month, as sequestration drew near, Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter echoed that sentiment in a Senate hearing.
“Over the next 10 years, if the budgetary caps triggered at the same time the sequester is triggered for FY13 are sustained, we’re not going to be able to carry out the defense strategy — the new defense strategy — that we crafted under President Obama’s leadership just one year ago,” he said.
Defense leaders are no doubt hoping Congressional action can still restore much of the funding lost under the requirements of the Budget Control Act of 2011, said Maren Leed, a senior adviser for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Right now, they are waiting to see what happens in Congress with the 2013 budget,” she said. “If it has become clearer in the next month [that] these cuts will persist, then I think they will have to revisit the strategy.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean scrapping the pivot, Leed said, but perhaps scaling it back.
“You could still keep the desired 60-40 ratio [of ships in the Asia-Pacific region versus elsewhere] even with a smaller number of ships,” she said. “But I suspect what you’ll see is larger gaps.”
Other aspects of the strategy may suffer as well, including deployments of hospital ships and ground troop presence in Australia, Leed said.
Another analyst, Cindy Williams, a principal research scientist in the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the defense cuts don’t doom the pivot. But U.S. policymakers have to get out of the habit of intervening in every Middle Eastern conflict that arises, she said.
“What they can’t do is rebalance to Asia and undertake another round of Iraq and Afghanistan … and retain the expectation that they can get 200,000 troops into a long war and keep that level for years at a time,” she said.
History suggests major defense cuts are coming as more than a decade of war winds down, she said. There is little reason to believe a Congress looking desperately for budget cuts will give the Pentagon everything it wants, she said.
“I think that it is almost certain they’re going to face cuts of at least 10 percent,” she said. “But if they’re strategic in how they make those reductions, they can easily rebalance toward Asia and have a very strong military when they’re done.”