Preparing for the Pacific pivot

Marines from Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265, an MV-22 Osprey squadron stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, Japan, attended the Japan Air Self-Defense Force Nyutabaru Air Base Air Show, Dec. 1, 2013. The air show was the first public display of an Osprey in Mainland Japan. Prior to the air show, VMM-265 hosted a media relations event Nov. 30, aboard the JASDF installation. The air show is an annual event hosted by the JASDF in Miyazaki, Miyazaki Prefecture. (Official Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Benjamin Pryer/Released)


By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 29, 2013

This story has been corrected.

The United States’ planned military pivot to the Pacific was largely clouded by fiscal uncertainty as Congress and the Department of Defense wrestled with budget cuts throughout 2013.

Even as aircraft and a new warship moved to the region this year, the department’s top leaders warned a full shift will never be possible if lawmakers allow the defense budget to be slashed by a half-trillion dollars over the coming decade.

Despite the warnings, an initial $46 billion in cuts went into effect in March, and while a deal was struck in mid-December that removes an immediate threat of more government shutdowns, the uncertainty of a long-term budget still looms.

The pivot is a key initiative for the Obama administration and is aimed at expanding the U.S. military presence with new ships, joint exercises and troop rotations as China also seeks a greater economic and military role here. The shift could also help close the long chapter of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and focus American influence on an area that is home to the world’s largest economies and many long-simmering political tensions.

The United States continued to step up exercises this year with Pacific allies including Australia and Japan as a show of dedication to the strategy. Talks were also underway with the Philippines on allowing a rotational military presence in the country — the first since U.S. forces were kicked out by Manila in 1992.

It raised the possibility of the first major diplomatic breakthrough to increase military forces in the region and push the pivot forward since the U.S. inked a deal with Australia in 2011 allowing Marine Corps units to rotate through Darwin.

However, the Philippines discussions broke off in early October and the effort was overshadowed by Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the country. Top officials on both sides still appeared optimistic that negotiations would continue and an agreement could be reached.

U.S. leaders also continued to talk publicly about a new commitment to the region, and the DOD offered new pivot timetables and fielded new military equipment. But even progress outside the fiscal troubles in Washington faced some challenges and scrutiny.

The commander of U.S. Pacific Command told Congress the relocation of Okinawa-based Marines to Guam and Hawaii will take at least another 13 years. The redistribution of Marine forces throughout the Pacific has evolved into a key component of the Pacific pivot but the project has been dogged since 2006 by delays and red tape.

The restructuring of Marine forces on Okinawa alone is not slated for completion until 2029, according to a timetable released in March by the U.S. and Japan.

Also in March, the USS Freedom became the first of the military’s new littoral combat ships to steam into deployment in the Pacific and Asia — a visible symbol of the U.S. commitment. The pivot strategy has called for placing 60 percent of Navy ships in the region.

The Freedom was deployed to Changi Naval Base in Singapore, a prime location to cruise the Pacific region throughout the year and take part in exercises. But the $500 million first-in-class vessel was sidelined for maintenance during July and October making it unable to perform scheduled tasks due to technical difficulties.

The Navy called the issues routine. Still, such problems raised reliability questions over a vessel billed as the next generation in surface warfare as the U.S. was attempting to roll out the Pacific pivot.

Another new piece of military hardware — the Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft — bolstered its presence on Okinawa when a second squadron arrived in August following an initial deployment in 2012.

The aircraft vastly increase the range and carrying capacity of Marine Corps forces in the Pacific, adding more weight to the pivot strategy. It proved valuable during recovery operations following Haiyan in October.

But a year after protests first flared, the Ospreys continued to spark public anger on Okinawa, where residents are wary of past crashes and worry the hybrid aircraft could go down in a residential area. The MV-22 has now become a symbol of anti-military opposition on the island and can be seen on bumper stickers and protest signs.

Twitter: @travis_tritten

A previous version of this story misstated the USS Freedom's deployment location. It has been corrected.

A Navy sailor teaches visit, board, search and seizure techniques to Philippine marines during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training Philippines 2013 in this June 2013 photo.