FPI Bulletin: Obama Can Cut Defense or Pivot to Asia—But Not Both

February 13, 2012

From FPI Policy Analysts Patrick Christy and Evan Moore

In late 2011, the Obama administration announced its desire to refocus foreign policy on the Asia-Pacific.  However, this so-called “Asia Pivot” will be fundamentally undermined by the President’s effort to deeply slash defense spending over the next decade.
To be sure, the President understands the Asia-Pacific’s growing strategic and economic importance.  The region is home to nearly half of the world’s population, several nuclear-armed states, and one quarter of global wealth.  While the Obama administration may publicly demur, it appears to privately understand that China’s rise is upsetting the balance of military and economic power in Asia.  Responding to this upheaval will require not just the refocus of America’s attention and resources, but also bolstering its capabilities to meet the inherent challenge of China’s so-called “peaceful rise.”
Initial—but important—steps have been taken to reiterate America’s military commitment to the region.  First, the President announced plans in 2011 to station 2,500 Marines in Australia.  Under the agreement, U.S. forces will use existing facilities—which are located far away from China’s arsenal of missiles—to conduct training and joint exercises with Australian forces, with the aim of improving interoperability with a critical American ally.
Second, the U.S. Navy plans to station some of its newest littoral combat ships at Singapore’s naval facility.  Singapore is apparently eager to expand ties with the United States amid China’s increasingly aggressive regional posture.  As Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations, wrote in December, U.S. naval ships in Singapore “will conduct cooperative counterpiracy or countertrafficking operations around the South China Sea.”  In addition, if Beijing continues to increase tensions in the South China Sea, the forward-deployment of U.S. vessels there will help to further assure the region of America’s stabilizing power.
Third, the United States is moving forward with talks to base naval ships at existing facilities in the Philippines.  Manila is increasingly worried about China’s growing regional influence, and taking steps to bolster its own military capabilities.  An agreement with Washington will expand joint cooperation and provide a centrally-located position for the United States to react to developments in the South China Sea.   Currently, only 600 U.S. Special Forces—restricted mainly to an advisory role in counterterrorism operations—operate out of the Philippines.
More can be done to further solidify America’s long-term role in the Asia-Pacific.  Indeed, there is a growing chorus of calls among allies and friends alike for the United States to become even more active and engaged in the region.
What’s troubling, though, is that the Obama administration’s Pentagon budget seriously undercuts his new Asia-Pacific strategy.  The President’s fiscal year 2013 budget proposal slashes $487 billion from military spending over the next decade—and that’s on top of three rounds of deep cuts already implemented since 2009.  What’s worse, this budget proposal ignores current law, which mandates an additional $500 billion in defense cuts over the next decade.  To quote Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, these combined cuts will “devastate” the U.S. military.
The U.S. Navy in particular will be hard hit.  Although Obama has said that defense cuts “will not—I repeat—will not—come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific,” the reality is that reductions will impact global operations by undercutting resources for current and future offshore platforms. 
The Navy’s total number of ships has steadily declined since the early 1990s—from 546 vessels in 1990 to about 285 today.  While the Navy will maintain—at least for now—11 aircraft carriers, the Pentagon has announced the early retirement of seven cruisers and two amphibious ships; postponed construction on a large-deck amphibious ship and the new Virginia-class submarine; and is cutting the overall number of Littoral Combat Ships and Joint High Speed Vessels over the next five years.  Of course, none of this accounts for the full trillion-dollar cut required by current law.  To implement that will require the Navy to cut its fleet to levels not seen since before the First World War.  In this future, America will cease to have the two-ocean navy that it has had for the past 70 years. 
Meanwhile, America’s military rivals are taking notice.  From 2000 to 2010, Beijing’s unclassified military budget grew at an average of 12.1 percent, according to a Pentagon report.  As China modernizes its military, it is prioritizing the development of advanced ballistic and cruise missiles that are designed to deny U.S. aircrafts and ships access to nearby waters. 
Moreover, China’s naval capabilities are allowing Beijing to expand its maritime reach far beyond its shores.  Today, the People’s Liberation Army boasts 29 submarines, compared to just eight in 2004.  The Congressional Research Service estimates that at current levels of procurement and production, the PLA’s submarine force will consist of 75 vessels by 2025.  This underwater force will ensure Beijing’s pre-eminence among western Pacific naval powers, and limit the U.S. Navy’s ability to operate in the region.
Today, America’s leadership in the Asia-Pacific—which has overseen the region’s economic growth, peace, and stability for decades—is being questioned.  Rising military competitors, such as China, are developing advanced weapons systems to directly challenge America’s dominance of the high seas.  And while U.S. military technology continues to reign supreme, at least for the moment, capability gaps are narrowing.  The Obama administration’s repeated cuts to the defense budget will strangle America’s ability to field the force necessary to meet its own stated strategy not just Asia, but around the world.
President Obama believes that the Pentagon can drastically cut its budget while shifting focus toward China, the long-term strategic challenge of the 21st century.  But he is deeply mistaken.  At best, the United States can pivot to Asia, or cut its defense budget—but not both.  It would be far better if the President and Congress recognize that managing the turbulent global security environment cannot be done on the cheap, and instead increase defense spending to a level consistent with America’s strategic needs.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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