Is America Pivoting to Asia Fast Enough?

Defense Secretary Panetta has put some muscle behind the Obama administration's Pacific ambitions. But will a few more ships really be enough to stare down China?

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta delivered his first keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, an annual convention that hosts top defense officials from Asia-Pacific nations. Last year, the talk focused on allegations of Chinese aggression against Vietnamese survey vessels near the Spratly Islands, and sparks flew as China’s Defense Minister Liang Guanglie spiritedly defended Beijing’s conduct. This year, Liang was a no-show, and all eyes were on Panetta as he laid out the U.S. military’s plans for putting some muscle behind the Obama administration’s much-heralded "pivot" to Asia, unveiled by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Foreign Policy last November.

Panetta used his bully pulpit to reaffirm American resolve in maritime Asia. Despite budgetary headwinds, he said, Washington will "rebalance" forces to keep faith with regional allies like the Philippines. It will remain the self-appointed guardian of the regional commons — the seas and skies beyond the jurisdiction of any coastal state, where seafaring nations carry on commerce and project military power. Now as for many decades, command of the commons is the substructure on which U.S. strategy is built.

In material terms, though, the slow-motion redeployment of naval forces Panetta foresees will be a rather modest affair — the buzz among media commentators notwithstanding (one distinguished pundit took note of the change of terminology from "pivot" to "rebalancing" before concluding, "Whatever it is, it’s big."). Whether it’s enough to keep pace with swiftly changing circumstances in the greater Asia-Pacific region — in particular China’s rise to maritime eminence — remains to be seen.

The Pentagon’s budget draft, the defense secretary declared, marks "the first in what will be a sustained series of investments and strategic decisions to strengthen our military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region." He advised the conference’s high-level participants to judge "the full measure of our security presence and our security commitment," not just by the number of hulls in the U.S. Pacific Fleet but by the gee-whiz technology boasted by U.S. ships and warplanes. Each new generation of weaponry is far more potent than the one that came before, he rightly noted. Raw numbers can mislead.

Regional audiences should also measure the United States’ resolve by its visibility in the region, he said — showing up is half the battle. "Over the next few years," vouchsafed Panetta, "we will increase the number and the size of our exercises in the Pacific." The Navy will step up port visits not just in the Pacific but in the Indian Ocean.

But the big news was in the numbers the defense secretary affixed to his remarks. By 2020, he announced, "the Navy will reposture its forces from today’s roughly 50/50 percent split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about a 60/40 split between those oceans. That will include six aircraft carriers … a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, Littoral Combat Ships [LCSs], and submarines." The navy’s goal is to field "about 300" battle-force ships total, slightly more than the current 285-ship inventory. Panetta’s plan thus equates to reassigning around 30 ships to the U.S. Pacific Fleet over the next eight years.

Will it be enough? Under the 2007 U.S. Maritime Strategy — a Bush-era directive that the Obama administration has let stand — the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard vow to stage "credible combat power" in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean for the foreseeable future. By that the strategy’s framers mean the capacity to "impose local sea control wherever necessary … by ourselves if we must." The Navy remains the two-ocean navy it has been since World War II. But the second ocean is now the Indian Ocean — not the Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea, or other familiar expanses. Washington reserves the right to take command of Asian waters at times and places of its choosing.

Which raises two related questions. One, which tenth of the Navy will move to the Pacific? Nearly 60 percent of the submarine fleet already calls Pacific seaports home, as part of a redeployment that commenced in 2006. One aircraft carrier will transfer to the Pacific Fleet. That’s only a few hulls, which implies that surface combatants — the cruisers, destroyers, and Littoral Combat Ships Panetta catalogued — will comprise most of the newcomers to the Pacific Fleet. A contingent heavy on cruisers and destroyers — vessels sporting the Aegis radar/fire-control system and scores of guided missiles — would pack a far meaner punch than a force with a large proportion of LCSs.

The LCS is a lightly built, lightly armed man-of-war. It performs a single mission at a time — anything from antisubmarine warfare to clearing sea mines. The Navy hopes to acquire 55 of them, constituting a significant share of a 300-ship Navy. Four of these small ships will forward-deploy to Singapore at any given time, while eight may reportedly be stationed in the Persian Gulf. That’s a dozen total. An old Navy rule of thumb holds that the fleet needs three ships to keep one on station. One is at sea. The second is working up for deployment. The third is in a shipyard undergoing overhaul and completely unavailable.

Multiply by three, and this rough-and-ready formula implies that 30-40 LCSs will join the Pacific Fleet over time. How much combat power that represents is debatable. The LCS has important diplomatic uses but is not designed to go in harm’s way against enemy battle fleets. "These are not large surface combatants that are going to sail into the South China Sea and challenge the Chinese military; that’s not what they’re made for," conceded Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations and America’s top naval officer, in April.

As Panetta observed in Singapore, counting ships while overlooking the hardware installed in them can be deceptive. Credible combat power vis-à-vis pirates in speedboats — the kind of mission for which the LCS is ideally suited — is different from credible combat power against China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy. In short, a lighter force may be suitable for noncombat missions like counterpiracy or counterproliferation, but not for slugging it out in a sea fight. What mix of vessels the Navy earmarks for the Pacific Fleet will say much about the efficacy of Panetta’s redeployment.

The second question: Why concentrate just 60 percent of the Navy in the vastness of the "Indo-Pacific" theater, when — judging from the Maritime Strategy — the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard service chiefs consider the Atlantic Ocean a safe expanse? Why not more?

Apart from a nagging piracy problem in the Gulf of Guinea, off the west coast of Africa, it’s hard to name a serious threat in the Atlantic Fleet’s area of responsibility. Why not reserve most of the lightweight LCS fleet for Atlantic service, along with an amphibious ready group to respond when natural disasters or humanitarian emergencies strike? Such a naval package would match the "permissive," relatively nonthreatening strategic environment there while freeing heavy ships for the increasingly competitive Asian theater.

As Panetta noted, it’s standard practice to divide the U.S. Navy into symmetrical fleets. That is, they’re roughly equal in numbers and capability. That tradition may have outlived its usefulness. A two-ocean navy need not be composed of identical fleets. And if something truly dire happens in the Atlantic, generating demand for heavy forces, Pacific Fleet units can always "swing" back through the Panama Canal.

The Pentagon, then, can rebalance the Navy by unbalancing it. The Atlantic Fleet need not be a smaller carbon copy of the Pacific Fleet. Tradeoffs and risk management are nothing new. Indeed, such an asymmetric arrangement would be a throwback to the Navy’s pre-World War II history, before the nation chose to invest in a stand-alone navy for each coast.

As late as 1914, three masters of American sea power — ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, former Naval War College President Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt — debated where to position the unified U.S. battle fleet during World War I. They concluded it should drop anchor in the Pacific. European navies were evacuating those waters to wage war at home. Japan might seize the opportunity to make mischief. A rump force could guard U.S. interests in the Atlantic while the battle fleet plied the Pacific as a deterrent.

Debates like this one were commonplace before the age of the two-ocean Navy. The Navy’s past thus may be its future. Will it? Much depends on China’s naval ascent. If Beijing exercises restraint, it can soothe misgivings in Washington and Asian capitals. Barring an overbearing Chinese threat that demands a swift response, there’s something to be said for the kind of slow, resolute change to the Asian strategic equilibrium Panetta envisions. It avoids unduly alarming friends, bystanders — and prospective antagonists.

Dramatic change would also require the U.S. naval leadership to make a mental leap. After seven decades, the two-ocean construct is embedded in U.S. Navy strategy, operations, and bureaucratic routine. It’s hard to jettison time-honored practices unless forced to do it.

The Navy aside, "Europe first" has a long pedigree in American foreign policy. A determined constituency defends it. In May, Council on Foreign Relations pundit Leslie Gelb celebrated — perhaps prematurely — the pivot’s demise. Giving the order to allocate forces unevenly between the Atlantic and Pacific fleets — beyond a 40/60 split — would be a political decision of enormous moment for any president. It would stoke pushback like Gelb’s, magnified a thousandfold. Why bother unless absolutely necessary?

From a political standpoint, it’s far easier to adjust U.S. deployment patterns gradually as circumstances warrant. More abrupt — or more menacing — change in the Indo-Pacific would clear minds. And that would clear the obstacles to more dramatic action. China should take note.

James R. Holmes is the J.C. Wylie chair of maritime strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.


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