Panetta in Singapore: Shangri-La or lost horizon?
Secretary of Defense Panetta’s speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Shangri-La Dialogue has received considerable attention in the press. I was a delegate to the dialogue and was in the hall when Panetta spoke. Having had an opportunity to discuss the speech with officials from across the globe at the conference, and also ...
Secretary of Defense Panetta's speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Shangri-La Dialogue has received considerable attention in the press. I was a delegate to the dialogue and was in the hall when Panetta spoke. Having had an opportunity to discuss the speech with officials from across the globe at the conference, and also to reflect upon it during a flight home that crossed half the globe, I'd like to share some thoughts.
Secretary of Defense Panetta’s speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Shangri-La Dialogue has received considerable attention in the press. I was a delegate to the dialogue and was in the hall when Panetta spoke. Having had an opportunity to discuss the speech with officials from across the globe at the conference, and also to reflect upon it during a flight home that crossed half the globe, I’d like to share some thoughts.
Panetta gave a good speech and even better answers to questions from the audience. He provided a clear statement of the United States’ enduring role as a Pacific power. As a native of Monterey, California, he spoke evocatively of how America has influenced, and been influenced by the Pacific. He also put more meat on the bones of the Obama administration’s pivot/re-balance to Asia, noting that by 2020 the United States would deploy 60 percent of its navy in the Pacific, including six aircraft carriers and a majority of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. He also pledged to increase the number and size of exercises it conducts with allies and friends in the region.
Panetta’s strong words were mirrored in the size of the U.S. delegation, the largest ever sent to the Shangri-La dialogue. The Chinese, by contrast, kept a much lower profile. For reasons still unclear, Panetta’s Chinese counterpart, Minister of National Defense Liang Guanglie, decided to stay away this year after having attended last year’s event.
Perhaps ironically, then, much of the discussion on the margins of the summit was about American staying power in the region. One word in particular hung over the conference like Singapore’s oppressive humidity: "sequestration." Even without sequestration, however, there are real questions as to whether the Obama administration’s defense program is sufficient to back its words with action.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of sea power. The Pacific is a maritime theater, and warships remain a major yardstick for measuring military strength. The size and composition of the U.S. navy is key both to assuring allies and deterring adversaries in peacetime as well as to fighting and winning the nation’s wars. The Pacific is a theater where numbers matters. A ship, no matter how powerful, can only be in one place at a time.
In his speech, Panetta noted that the Obama administration has decided to retire a number of warships ahead of schedule, so that today’s navy, which is already the smallest it has been since before the United States entered World War I, will get even smaller. He argued, however, that the United States would eventually replace retired ships with more modern, and more capable, combatants. That is only partially true: The upgraded Arleigh Burke-class destroyers will have more modern radar and combat systems than the Ticonderoga-class cruisers that are set to be retired. However, the Littoral Combat Ships that make up the bulk of the surface ships that the Navy is procuring are considerably less capable than the warships that are being retired.
There is, in fact, a growing gap between our commitments in Asia and our capability to protect them. It is a gap that both friends and competitors see emerging. As several colleagues and I argue in a newly released American Enterprise Institute report, the United States will need to go beyond current defense plans if it is to continue to play its historic role in the Pacific. We cannot just devote a larger slice of a smaller pie to the region. Rather, we will need new resources to modernize and expand the navy. We also need to explore new initiatives to enhance the credibility of the U.S. commitment to the region. These include working with our allies and friends to develop a coalition intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance network in the Western Pacific; expanding cooperation with our allies in undersea warfare; expanding the range of bases open to the United States; and enhancing nuclear deterrence. Unless we back our words with action, the United States will have difficulty bridging the capabilities-commitment gap.
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