Fiscal and Regional Challenges Threaten U.S. Strategy in Pacific
By Allyson Versprille
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The U.S. military will face several challenges as it attempts to shift strategic resources to the Asia-Pacific region, Navy and Marine Corps leaders said April 13.
Unresolved territorial claims, continuing threats from North Korea, an unpredictable China, and volatile weather patterns in the region are a few of the challenges that the United States must deal with as it pivots from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region, senior officers said at a panel discussion during the Navy League's 2015 Sea-Air-Space Exposition.
"Make no mistake that the Indo-Asia-Pacific region is fast becoming the world's economic center of gravity," said Rear Adm. Robert Girrier, deputy commander and chief of staff, U.S. Pacific Fleet. "We all rely on freedom of the seas so our economies can thrive" and prosperity requires unfettered access to shared maritime spaces in the Pacific, he said.
North Korea continues to be a threat to security and stability, said Girrier. "Whether it be the North Korea sinking of the [South Korean ship] Cheonan in 2010, the satellite launch in December 2012, or the consolidation of power we witnessed, rather brutally at times, Kim Jong-un is increasing his power in a way that threatens regional stability."
He also pointed to territorial disputes in the East China Sea between China and Japan over the extent of their exclusive economic zones as defined under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Disputes in the South China Sea over island and maritime claims also pose problems for the United States as it shifts to the Pacific. Currently, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and China have made claims to the territory, which includes one of the busiest shipping lanes in the area.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter recently criticized China's strong-arm tactics when dealing with the disputes in the South China Sea. While China has demonstrated maritime cooperation in the past — by escorting Syria's chemical weapons to a U.S. ship for deconstruction in 2014 and aiding in humanitarian efforts following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013 — actions in the Pacific that threaten escalation complicate the United States' efforts in the area, said Girrier.
The biggest challenge in continuing U.S. capability is the fiscal environment that the nation faces in the near future, said Lt. Gen. John Wissler, commanding general, III Marine Expeditionary Force.
Readiness and building partnerships require full funding. Sequestration, if put into place, could reduce the operations and maintenance budget that enables the service to repair equipment by as much as 34 percent, said Wissler. At the same time, the military estimates that the cost to execute current capabilities, operations and maritime exercises with allies will increase by 300 percent, he said. The United States currently has four amphibious ships forward deployed in the region but that presence needs to be stronger, said Wissler.
Natural disasters also endanger the strategy, said the leaders.
"The Pacific is a very, very dangerous place to sail," said Wissler. Enduring natural challenges in the region include typhoons, floods, earthquakes and tsunamis. Not all platforms can meet requirements to deal with these weather conditions, he said. New joint high-speed vessels offer tremendous capabilities but they will not be able to replace amphibious ships, he added.
Dealing with these challenges and successfully shifting to the Asia-Pacific region are essential for a prosperous U.S. economy, said the panelists.
Fifteen of the world's 20 busiest container ports are in the region, said Girrier. One-third of the world's trade and half of global oil passes through Southeast Asia, he added.
Wissler said five of the seven security alliances that the United States maintains are in the Pacific. Military forces in Australia, Japan and New Zealand are working with the United States to enhance their marine and amphibious capabilities. This summer the countries will participate in joint amphibious training exercises, he said.
“Australian, U.S., Japanese and New Zealand forces will come together and highlight the capability of expeditionary forces in defeating anti-access and area-denial strategies," said Wissler. "With our Japanese partners we’ll do bilateral training. Our Australian and New Zealand partners will integrate our capabilities."