Ships from the USS George Washington Carrier Strike Group, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Republic of Korea Navy sail during a trilateral exercise in the East China Sea, on June 22, 2012.

Ships from the USS George Washington Carrier Strike Group, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Republic of Korea Navy sail during a trilateral exercise in the East China Sea, on June 22, 2012. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kaitlyn R. Breitkreutz

Let’s Lock in the Rebalance to Asia

Much can be done to improve the U.S. defense posture in the Pacific, and for not much money.

America’s rebalance to Asia is real today. Whether it endures as a permanent feature of U.S. foreign and defense policy very much depends on the next several years. A bit of money, a lot of strategy, and adroit diplomacy can combine to lock in what should be a lasting pillar of America’s military power and influence. 

In 2011, President Obama addressed Australia’s Parliament with words designed to resonate throughout the region. “As we end today’s wars, I have directed my national security team to make our presence and mission in the Asia-Pacific [region] a top priority… As we plan and budget for the future, we will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region. We will preserve our unique ability to project power and deter threats to peace… Our enduring interests in the region demand our enduring presence in the region. The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.”

It was an extraordinary speech that helped quell concerns among allies and partners in Asia that declining U.S. defense spending would reduce America’s military presence there – a presence that is widely considered to be stabilizing in a region experiencing great geopolitical change. Indeed, in recent years, America’s treaty allies and enduring partners in the region have called for more U.S. military presence and interaction, not less.

The President’s 2011 speech was in some ways a rhetorical culmination of several years of effort by a loose network of players throughout the U.S. government who believed that the United States needed to make a clear commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. This effort had several champions of note, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who published a long essay in Foreign Policy magazine outlining the need to “pivot” to Asia.

Secretary Gates, whose first and proper priority was winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was nonetheless very open to strategy-driven approaches to increasing U.S. military presence in Asia, and he developed a framework for defense-posture policy in the region that continues to guide discussions today. It holds that U.S. posture in the region should be operationally resilient, geographically distributed, and politically sustainable:

  • “Operationally resilient” means able to adapt to an evolving warfighting environment that is moving from unguided weapons to guided weapons. Fixed bases and large, slow-moving ships are increasingly vulnerable to ballistic and cruise missiles. U.S. forces must be able to simultaneously defend themselves against salvos of guided munitions while prosecuting offensive operations.
  • “Geographically distributed” evokes two distinct ideas. First, U.S. doctrine, which currently concentrates forces around a few major facilities, particularly in northeast Asia, must be adjusted to “spread out” capabilities to complicate an adversary’s targeting. The correct posture would disperse forces over large geographic areas while retaining the ability to launch complex joint operations rapidly and decisively. Second, U.S. forces ought to increase their presence in southeast Asia, where treaty allies and partners alike grow increasingly concerned over China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.
  • “Politically sustainable” means that U.S. defense posture policies must find strong support within host-nation governments and populations. U.S. military posture must be as much about addressing the security needs of allies and partners as it is about preparing for specific plausible military contingencies. As well, they must be broadly supported by Congress and the American people, something that seems increasingly difficult to achieve in today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere; and be affordable under current fiscal constraints on defense spending.

Continued advocacy by officials at the White House, Foggy Bottom, and the Pentagon has led to several important defense posture initiatives, some of which President Obama mentioned in Canberra in November 2011, and some of which have been announced since. They include:

  1. A long-term agreement supporting a rotational deployment of a U.S. Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) in Darwin and greater access to Royal Australian Air Force facilities in northern Australia.
  2. The continuous deployment of U.S. littoral combat ships in Singapore.
  3. A 10-year pact with the Philippines that will give U.S. forces greater basing access, to include the ability to station ships and aircraft.
  4. Progress in executing the planned realignment of U.S. Marine forces within Okinawa, Japan to new facilities in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
  5. A stated U.S. commitment to put 60 percent of U.S. naval forces in the Pacific.  

None of these is earth-shattering in isolation, but together they represent America’s commitment to effectively rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.

But there are tough headwinds that make further progress difficult. They include a tight budgetary climate still dominated by the 2011 Budget Control Act and its Damocles’ Sword of sequestration, as well as new challenges in Iraq and Eastern Europe that will vie for the attention of policymakers and the scarce resources they control. It is worth remembering, however, that the posture initiatives that started in 2009 and 2010 occurred during the aftermath of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Moreover, history demonstrates that eras of fiscal constraint are often accompanied by great military innovations. Amphibious assault, strategic bombing, aircraft carriers, and tank warfare arose during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Nuclear-powered submarines armed with atomic weapons emerged from Eisenhower’s “more bang for the buck” efficiencies. Stealth, precision weapons, and advanced communications appeared during Jimmy Carter’s post-Vietnam drawdown. Put simply, tight budgets do not excuse a failure of imagination and innovation. It is possible to make good progress in the rebalance to Asia in the final years of the Obama administration.  Here are five areas to focus on:

  1. Move the U.S. Navy toward a high-low mix: A Congressional Budget Office report released earlier this month revealed that the size of the American fleet will likely fall from today’s 275 ships to between 208 to 251 ships. This report is symptomatic of a growing trend: traditional approaches to defense procurement are yielding declining returns. While U.S. policymakers have made much of current plans to base 60% of U.S. naval vessels in the Pacific, three-fifths of a declining fleet won’t impresses our Asian allies and partners, or deter adversaries.

    To increase the size of the fleet, the U.S. Navy should procure a new mixture of advanced and existing platforms. For instance, the Navy currently buys two high-tech Aegis destroyers per year. Given that it already has 75 of these, it could shift to annually purchasing one destroyer, one logistics ship, two frigates, two Joint High Speed Vessels and two coastal patrol craft for the same amount, growing the force by seven ships in a balanced, “high-low” manner. In this way, the military can meet its forward-presence requirements while living within fiscal constraints.  
  2. Move from forward deployments to forward stationing. We need to look anew at basing more ships in Asia. For instance, it takes four U.S.-based ships to keep one ship forward deployed in Asia, but only one forward stationed ship to maintain that same presence. Recent agreements with Singapore, the Philippines, and Australia to allow the forward deployment of ships should lead to a more permanent basing architecture.
  3. Build counter-A2/AD capacity with allies and partners: China’s military modernization efforts aim to hold U.S. and allied forces at both heightened risk and increased distance. Beijing is smartly attempting to move more fully into a mature guided weapons regime, and to erode America’s quarter-century of military-technical advantage. But China’s dependence on imported energy and other raw materials renders it geographically vulnerable, with large archipelagic nations flanking its eastern and southern approaches providing chokepoints that could be easily interdicted. China seems to be doing its level best to increase tensions with these neighbors with assertiveness in the South and East China Seas and an attempt to reestablish a sphere of military influence. These nations could develop their own “anti-access and area denial” strategies with requisite military capabilities that can hold China’s naval and air forces at risk. A few select military sales of advanced air defense or long-range anti-ship capabilities would go a long way toward establishing something akin to a multination deterrent against maritime aggression. 
  4. Identify additional U.S. defense posture initiatives: As part of what Andrew Krepinevich recently termed Archipelagic Defense, the United States should identify and pursue opportunities to forward-deploy additional capabilities with old treaty allies such as the Philippines and emerging strong partners like Vietnam. Local dynamics would necessarily constrain the options, but a few efforts to improve U.S. presence in southeast Asia would help counter the narrative that China is running the regional table. From joint maritime surveillance stations in the western Philippines to a standing access agreement for maritime search and rescue capabilities in Vietnam, the possibilities number in the dozens and should be explored systematically. Exercises, exchanges, and port visits are important components of America’s presence, but access and basing arrangements are the real coin of this realm.  
  5. Use unmanned systems to create a common operating picture: The United States, which has begun to take advantage of unmanned systems, should develop a strategy to provide U.S.-designed systems to allies and partners in Asia. Recent reforms to export-control laws should be helpful, but the Pentagon must develop an export strategy to fully realize the strategic potential. If Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia and even India can access and field advanced unmanned surveillance systems—and the United States can adroitly support a data-sharing and fusion architecture that would evolve into a common operating picture of the South China Sea for instance—the strategic benefits might be truly significant.

All of these ideas have origins stretching back for years, and all of the above options have champions inside OSD, the military services, and even in Congress. None of these options would break the bank. All address real needs across the joint force, and all lie within the realm of the possible. These ideas and others deserve to be part of a renewed discussion on how U.S. military power and defense diplomacy can underwrite our commitment to security and stability in Asia.