Naval Officials: Pivot to Asia Does Not Require Expensive New Hardware

By Sandra I. Erwin

The U.S. military’s shift to Asia is going to require creative new ways of deploying forces but not necessarily costly new equipment, senior officials said.

Naval forces already have most of the resources they need to increase their presence in the Asia-Pacific region, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said. The shift-to-Asia strategy requires “operating forward,” and that can be accomplished with the existing force, Greenert said July 11 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C.

“With what we own, we have to make the most of it,” said Greenert. Naval forces will seek “innovative ways to be forward,” he said. “We have to prioritize. We have to look for low cost” ways of doing business. “For me, it’s not building a bunch of platforms” that are complicated and expensive, said Greenert. Current ships will last for decades, and they can be updated with new weapons and sensors, he said. The Navy will buy “less costly platforms and [new] payloads” for existing ships and aircraft.

A similar outlook has been embraced by the Marine Corps, said Commandant Gen. James Amos. “The old thought that we have to build big, expensive things is not going to carry the day today,” he said at CSIS.

To absorb its share of a $500 billion spending cut that will hit the Defense Department over the next decade, theMarine Corps would shed 8,000 troops and forgo purchases of new armored vehicles, trucks, tactical aircraft and helicopters.

But Marines hope the cutbacks will not slow down the pivot to Asia. The Navy has enough ships to ensure U.S. “forward presence” in Asia, Amos said. He cited littoral combat ships, joint high-speed vessels, roll-on, roll-off cargo ships, and T-AKE cargo vessels as examples of “brand new” ships that offer exciting possibilities. “Is there room for some creative types of employment and deployment? I would say, ‘yes,’” asserted Amos.

The same ships are going to have to do more, and pick up new missions, he said. That can be controversial in the Defense Department, Amos recognized. “There’s great fear institutionally when you do that,” he said. “People get scared” because doing more with less could eliminate “requirements” for new weapon systems. “We need to do things more creatively,” said Amos.

The Asia strategy has been welcome by naval forces, he said. “We need to be engaged in Asia. … Sixty percent of the world’s oceans are in the Asia-Pacific region.”

The Pentagon, meanwhile, is still studying how much of the Asia strategy is “affordable.” A high-level review led by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will make the final determination, Amos said. “We’re still working our way through that. I like the strategy. It’s the right thing to do. But we have to figure out how much can we afford.”

The cost of ships is only one piece of the puzzle. Personnel are expensive, too. The Marine Corps currently has three infantry battalions deployed in Okinawa, Japan, and plans to add a fourth as part of the Asia strategy. It costs $18 million to train and deploy each battalion, Amos said. It’s not yet clear whether the Marine Corps can afford all four battalions. Marines also expect to increase their presence in Australia. A standing force of 250 Marines in Darwin will be augmented by the end of this decade with a Marine Expeditionary Unit of about 1,000 to 1,500 Marines and sailors who will move around the region aboard ships.

Since across-the-board spending cuts went into effect for all federal agencies March 1, there has been speculation that the Pentagon would pare back its ambitions to increase the military’s presence in Asia.Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter insisted in an April 8 speech that the pivot is not in immediate jeopardy. But if sequester cuts continue into next year, he warned, plans could change.

Greenert said that, regardless of the budget situation, the Navy is prepared to make the shift to Asia. “There won’t be a point when we run down the hall and say, ‘We can’t do the strategy’” because budgets are being cut, he said. But there will have to be a debate about how much capacity the military can provide with less money, he said.

Fiscal austerity also will demand that the Navy rethink how to modernize its entire force. Greenert believes the future fleet will have to be made up of ships that are “truck like” and can be adapted to various jobs. “It’s about payloads, not platforms,” he said. “There will be more unmanned vehicles, both aerial and undersea.”

But Greenert cautioned that spending cuts will result in diminished naval capabilities. The automatic sequester reductions are having real consequences in the way the Navy prepares for future contingencies, he said. Ships and airplanes will still be able to deploy to Asia, but backup forces will have less equipment and training. As a result, there will be a reduced ability to “surge” if there is a crisis.

Fewer aircraft carrier and amphibious ship “battle groups” will be available to deploy on short notice, Greenert said. The norm for the Navy and Marine Corps has been to have three carrier battle groups and three amphibious ready groups able to respond to a crisis within a week. “We have one of each right now,” he said. “It’s that surge force that’s hollowing out.”

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Expeditionary Warfare, Shipbuilding, Aircraft Carriers

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