Generals Double Down on Pacific Pivot Despite Budget Woes
“In the rebalance to the Pacific, sequestration slowed us down,” Gen. Herbert J. Carlisle, commander of Pacific Air Forces, said during a speech at the Air Force Association’s annual conference here. “It’s not stopping us by any stretch of the imagination. All of our foreign friends that are here today need to understand that this fiscal constraint today is no indication whatsoever of our long term commitment to the Asia-Pacific region and what it means to us.”
Adm. James Winnefeld, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, drove the point home earlier in the day that the Air Force and its sister services must be prepared to support a fixed national security strategy with resources that, at best, are dwindling.
“The only future that seems certain is that there are no Doolittle Raiders coming over the horizon to strike courageously at the heart of our fiscal troubles,” Winnefeld said. “I would calculate the odds of the Defense Department enduring considerable financial stress for the foreseeable future as being rather high.”
Automatic budget cuts are hindering efforts to increase the combat capabilities of U.S. and allied forces around the Pacific, Carlisle said. Training exercises and other engagement activities with allied militaries have also been dramatically scaled back, he said.
In an area of operations as huge and diverse as the Pacific Ocean, engagement with foreign partners is key, especially as the U.S. Navy and Air Force are force to fly and steam less due to budget constraints, Carlisle said.
“The most important thing is presence,” he said. “You’ve got to be there. You’ve got to get to know the folks. You have to go see what the environment is like.”
There are 36 countries in the region — five of which the United States shares mutual defense treaties — that produce more than half the world’s gross domestic product. The Air Force currently has nine bases scattered throughout the region, about 425 aircraft and 45,000 airmen.
That force supported 200 engagements with 28 foreign militaries in fiscal year 2012. The current fiscal year “was not so good” because of sequestration, Carlisle said. Training was lost and promises to allies who rely on the U.S. Air Force to host the exercises were broken. He has tentatively planned on hosting 40 engagements in fiscal year 2014.
“It’s not enough, but right now it’s the best I can do from where I am sitting,” he said.
In the Pacific, the Air Force is facing a new sort of operating environment where its aircraft may not always have free reign. Jets, bombers and unmanned aerial vehicles have been able to fly over Iraq and Afghanistan with almost complete impunity for more than a decade. That could all change in a potential conflict with North Korea, Carlisle said.
“We’ve all been molded to a security situation where the last 12 years — in many cases 20-plus years — everything more than about 8 feet above the ground we’ve owned,” he said. “That is not the way it’s going to be in my theater of operations.”
The military can expect to be denied communications and access and face new threats like cyber-attacks, he said. Winnefeld said the Air Force has come to excel in permissive environments, and that its experience is transferrable to other theaters, but the service should not rest on its laurels.
“Our airmen have owned these unchallenged skies for a very long time and if we are not careful, lengthy periods of success will reap complacency and the curse of equilibrium,” Winnefeld said. “When the next big fight comes — and history suggests that it will — I think that contest will be a different fight … one that’s faster and harder and dependent on capabilities brought to bear by American airmen.”
One of the most difficult challenges facing the U.S. military in a hypothetical fight in the Pacific is the proliferation there of missiles that can sink Navy ships and shoot down Air Force bombers.
“Our potential adversaries have looked at how to keep us out and their primary way is missiles,” Carlisle said. “How do we defend against that integrated air and missile threat that faces us every day? It’s a huge challenge. Clearly, the best thing to do is take the archer out before he shoots. … That’s not always easy to do politically and it’s not always easy to do given where the launcher is.”
The Air Force needs weapon systems to counter the missile threat, he said. Active defense systems like patriot missiles and terminal high-altitude area defense batteries are necessary to intercept missiles before they reach their targets, he said. Powerful radars and persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technologies are also needed.
But this arms race is one the United States is likely to lose, Carlisle said. It is much less expensive for potential adversaries to purchase missiles than it is for the Air Force to buy enough systems to defend against them.
“We need new systems and they need to come to the Pacific first,” he said.