By Sandra I. Erwin
The Pentagon six months ago welcomed President Obama’s new strategic guidance that called for the military to wind down ground wars, downsize land forces and shift its focus to the vast Pacific Ocean.
But the plan already is being shredded both by election-year politics and criticism that it alienates Europe and other allies. The strategy also is complicated by Washington’s uncomfortable stance regarding China.
The president’s guidance, critics said, antagonizes China and implies that the United States is pivoting away from the rest of the world.
Calling the strategy a pivot to Asia makes a catchy sound bite but is a “poor choice of words,” said former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright. This posture is being “interpreted by the rest of the world that we are turning their back on them,” he said in a speech this week at a U.S. Naval Institute conference in Norfolk, Va.Another line of attack came from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. While he agreed with Obama’s decision to focus on Asia, he questioned an approach that is overly militaristic at a time when the focus should be on trade relations that could help strengthen the U.S. economy.
“While it’s wrong to speak of a ‘pivot’ to Asia, the idea that we must rebalance U.S. foreign policy with an increasing emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region is undoubtedly correct,” McCain said May 14 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The continued peaceful development of China is in our interest,” said McCain. The United States, he added, should not seek a new Cold War in Asia where countries are forced to choose between the United States and China.
The business of Asia is business, not war, McCain suggested. And when it comes to trade, the United States has been sitting on the sidelines while Asia is “sprinting forward without us.”
He hammered the White House for not having concluded or ratified a single free trade agreement of its own making. Agreements signed with South Korea, Colombia and Panama were started by the Bush administration, China, by contrast, has secured nine trade agreements in Asia and Latin America since 2003, McCain said. It is negotiating five more, and it has four others under consideration.
“The bottom line is that America’s long-term strategic and economic success requires an ambitious trade strategy in Asia,” McCain insisted.
From a military perspective, the Obama plan has been blasted by shipbuilding industry advocates and other defense hawks on Capitol Hill who had assumed that pivoting to Asia meant a huge naval buildup. “The Asia-Pacific region is primarily a maritime theater, so our ability to project military power there depends mostly on the U.S. Navy,” McCain said. “And yet the Navy is still short of its own goal of 313 ships. What’s worse, the administration now proposes to retire seven cruisers earlier than planned; to phase out two major lift ships needed by the Marine Corps; and to delay the acquisition of one large-deck amphibious ship, one Virginia-class attack submarine, two littoral combat ships and eight high-speed transport vessels,” he griped. “We are now retiring ships faster than we are replacing them.”
Navy officials have defended their ship procurement plan, and have argued that retirements of old vessels are needed to cut costs. Here, the Navy is caught in the budgetary crossfire. It might buy more ships if it had more money, but Congress is not helping in this regard as the House recently voted to prevent the Navy from decommissioning ships although it is not clear where the extra money will come from. The administration is asking for ground troop reductions to offset the cost of building new weapons for the Asia strategy, but Congress won’t go for that, either. A House bill requires the Army and Marine Corps to slow down the projected rate of troop reductions.
Against a backdrop of budget gridlock, it has been left up to the Navy and Air Force to work out the details of how they would prepare to fight future enemies in Asia. Both services created an action plan called “air sea battle” that they have touted as the framework for how naval and air forces would modernize in order to fight a peer competitor in Asia, a.k.a. China.
But air-sea battle, too, is being lambasted for being too vague and for tacitly declaring war on China. Air-sea battle is becoming the “Holy Grail” for Pentagon weapon buyers and for industry, Cartwright said. The problem is that it is neither a doctrine nor a scenario and “It is trying to be all things to all people,” he said. The worst thing about air-sea battle, he said, is that it is “demonizing China. That's not in anybody's interest.”
The chiefs of the Navy and the Air Force made a joint appearance May 16 at The Brookings Institution, seeking to shed light on the perplexing air-sea battle idea. They talked about Navy-Air Force teamwork — sharing weapons, facilities and other resources — as a necessary way of doing business in the Pacific, particularly as both services face funding cuts. They talked about the need to “protect the commons,” meaning outer space, maritime chokepoints and other ungoverned areas that the rest of the world expects the United States to secure.
Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Norton A. Schwartz cautioned that air-sea battle should not be equated to a license to buy new hardware. “It’s not about new stuff,” he said. “It’s about making use of existing capabilities in a new way.”
Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, chief of naval operations, also downplayed expectations about air-sea battle. “It’s a framework to organize, train and equip. We’ll continue to refine it,” he said.
He also pushed back on critics' assertions that air-sea battle focuses on fighting China. “It’d be a mistake to apply air-sea battle to any particular campaign,” said Greenert. “It should be applied broadly.”