When the U.S. could be making a show of strength toward China and Russia as several Pacific flashpoints heat up, it is instead mired in debates about military readiness, troop reductions and deep budget cuts.
The result could be a series of opportunistic “bites-of-an-apple” provocations that fall below the level that would trigger a U.S. military response, eroding confidence in America's commitment to help current and possible allies, analysts say.
Earlier this month, China floated a mobile oil-drilling rig in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, setting off a standoff of flotillas in which Hanoi claims two of its ships were rammed. Violent riots in Vietnam have left dozens of ethnic Chinese injured or dead.
Just to the west, China recently began preparations for what the Philippines described as a possible military airstrip on a reef in the Spratly Islands, which both countries claim.
Meanwhile, Russia has ratcheted up its presence in the Pacific — including long-range air patrols off the coast of California and near the U.S. territory of Guam — to gather intelligence and display its military might. The Japan Air Self Defense Force almost doubled its number of scrambles against Russian aircraft in the 12 months leading up to March compared with the previous year.
And North Korea has intensified its rhetoric amid what appear to be preparations for its fourth underground nuclear weapons test.
The U.S. still maintains the most formidable force in the Pacific. The Pacific Fleet consists of about 180 ships, which include five aircraft carrier strike groups and almost 2,000 aircraft, according to U.S. Pacific Command. One aircraft carrier and about 65 ships are permanently forward deployed in Japan.
By comparison, as of last year China’s navy had only 52 frigates and 23 destroyers, many of them antiquated, according to the Pentagon’s most recent assessment of China’s military. Russia’s Pacific Fleet consists of a missile cruiser, five destroyers and a few dozen submarines, according to recent news reports.
“The U.S. certainly retains an ability to project an awful lot of air and sea power for more limited contingencies — and do so very quickly,” said Anthony Cordesman, a defense expert at the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
And even if U.S. forces did become embroiled in Pacific confrontations such as those unfolding in Vietnam and the Philippines, they aren’t the kind of interventions that demand huge follow-up forces, he said.
Cordesman cautioned against equating these kinds of skirmishes with a potential outbreak of hostilities on the Korean peninsula because the U.S. is prepared and willing to match escalation there, he said.
“You’re not going to go to general war over an [exclusive economic zone] or a reef somewhere in the Pacific,” he said.
Still, Cordesman admitted, irrational behavior and miscalculations by adversaries can quickly lead to escalation and “the need for putting many more follow-on forces in the field over time.”
Some experts say that flagging readiness — real or perceived — actually invites escalation by weakening America’s “deterrent effect” as China and Russia continue beefing up their Pacific forces.
In congressional testimony, top-ranking military chiefs have already warned that readiness is deteriorating, partly because of cuts from last year’s sequester at a time the military is struggling to refit and retrain after a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, testified before a Senate subcommittee in March that he was concerned about the readiness of “follow-on forces” that would be required should the peninsula enter crisis.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. John Amos told the same committee last fall that budget cuts leave “fewer forces, arriving less-trained, arriving later in the fight.”
Reduced readiness cuts two ways, said Todd Harrison, a defense expert with the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C.
“I think this reduction in readiness that we’re looking at will reduce our confidence in the ability of our military to intervene successfully if called upon,” he said. “That may weaken the deterrent effect on potential adversaries, but it could also create a situation where we self-deter.”
Dakota Wood, a defense expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., said that America’s current budget and readiness woes do not go unnoticed by China and Russia.
“There’s this deterrent value in being strongly forward, being strongly postured and having the perception that not only are your forces ready for action, but that the government in the U.S. is willing to press that case if it comes to it.
“When it comes to China, we are seeing increasing aggressiveness in trying to push forward their territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.
“China is likely viewing this as a window of opportunity to aggressively press its claims in these waters, and the U.S. is not well postured to come to the assistance of friends and allies in the region.”
Wood described this “pattern of conduct” as “taking small bites of an apple,” which over time will consume it.
“So each one of these little actions is below the threshold that would invite a large-scale conventional military response,” he said. “But they’re willing and able to take these small bites because they know the U.S., by this series of incidents, is unwilling to press the case.”
Terrence K. Kelly director of the Strategy and Resources Program at the RAND Corporation, said that individual skirmishes such as these might seem insignificant. But over time countries such as China and Russia can achieve their goals by “nibbling away” with “subresponse-level” aggression, Kelly said.
“It’s probably calculated to slowly over time achieve an effect that won’t elicit a military response from the U.S. or its allies,” he said.
Cordesman said, however, that even a modest U.S. intervention could lead to unintended escalation.
“The problem is that the United States responding — even if it solves one small, short-term problem — may lead to the other side responding in ways that again produce a steady pattern of escalation,” Cordesman said.
Judging by the testimony of the Chiefs of Staff earlier month during a Senate hearing on the Pentagon's proposal to reduce compensation and benefits for troops, the services aren’t hankering for a greater show of force in the Pacific. If Congress doesn't approve those compensation cuts, the Air Force will consider cutting $8.1 billion from readiness, mondernization and infrastructure accounts over the next five years, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III told a Senate Committee.
“We’ll take significant cuts to flying hours and weapons system sustainment accounts, reduce precision munitions buys and lower funding for training ranges, digging our readiness hole even deeper,” Welsh said.