Obama's defense pivot masks shrinkage, says FPI Director Eric Edelman and Dov Zakheim
President Barack Obama, when speaking at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention Monday, could likely discuss his new Pacific-focused military strategy. But is it, as the administration asserts, a major step forward in ensuring U.S. security — or a hollow policy masking a hollow force?
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking in Singapore recently, underscored the importance of peace and prosperity in the Pacific to maintaining peace and prosperity at home. He spelled out what the pivot strategy entails — including bolstering diplomacy, strengthening strategic partnerships, sustaining a presence in the region and maintaining force projection — that is, preserving our ability to fight at great distances from our shores.
These goals are essential, but not new. In fact, they’ve informed our policies in the Far East, and around the world, for decades. The Obama administration’s real change is not a shift of resources from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but the attempt to do more in both oceans with smaller forces. This White House is asking our military to protect U.S. interests with far fewer ships, fewer planes and fewer soldiers and Marines.
Indeed, the administration’s shipbuilding plan for the next 30 years directly conflicts with its purported strategy. Rather than proposing increases in naval and air forces to meet increasing regional commitments, Obama actually recommends shrinking both.
As a result, the Navy is set to continue downsizing. In the 1980s, we had a formidable fleet of 600 ships. By 2012, the Navy had contracted to 285 ships, and it’s expected to shrink to 268 ships — or even far fewer should Obama fail to stop sequestration and the automatic defense cuts that entails.
This decline could become irreversible. Or at least not reversible any time soon. Modern warships cannot be designed and built overnight. An enormous and highly complex infrastructure needs to be in place.
“We can’t cut ships from the 30-year plan,” the chief executive officer of shipbuilder Huntington-Ingalls said recently, “and expect to be able to quickly ‘ramp up’ production years down the road when we decide we need more ships after all.”
In other words, in the event of a crisis in the Pacific, we would be forced to respond with our diminished fleet — one projected to atrophy at a remarkable pace over the next few years.
The fact is that the Obama administration’s vaunted shift to Asia rests on illusory forces. But phantom fleets cannot patrol the oceans. Obama’s Navy is pivoting toward retirement — not the Pacific.
Panetta has acknowledged that we will be shifting toward Asia with a smaller force. He justifies the move by claiming the shrunken force would be “agile,” “flexible” and “more deployable.” History suggests the opposite will occur: Diminished military resources limit options and remove flexibility.
The Navy has been put in an untenable position. Its leaders are being handed fewer resources by the Obama administration and asked to use them to achieve expanded goals. Just when the Navy should be exploring new concepts and capabilities to meet the unique challenges posed by the vast expanse of the Pacific Rim, they are left trying to stay afloat.
The only real change put forward by the administration seems to be the redeployment of a single brigade (some 2,500 troops) of Marines to Australia. But this brigade would be forced to rely on a dwindling fleet of amphibious ships and tactical aircraft to ferry them to any potential combat theater in the region. Because current amphibious ship levels are projected to decline, the credibility of the Marine brigade as an “agile, flexible and more deployable” force is undermined from the start.
In the final analysis, the so-called “pivot” strategy is more a reflection of Obama’s fiscal priorities than a cogent plan to sustain peace and U.S. pre-eminence in the Pacific — or anywhere else.
A shrunken defense budget, for which the “pivot” is nothing more than a fig leaf, undercuts other aspects of the administration’s foreign policy. A strong military engenders equally strong alliances, and bolsters the force of our diplomacy.
There is much symbolism, and more than a little irony, in the fact that we are pointing our military power toward the setting sun. This irony should not be lost on the American people. It clearly will not be lost on our enemies.
Eric Edelman and Dov S. Zakheim both served as under secretaries of defense in the George W. Bush administration. They are now advisers to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
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.