‘No Decisions, No Changes’: Pentagon Fails to Stick Asia Pivot

The long-anticipated review was, for some, a “complete waste of time.”

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
A Department of Defense plaque is seen outside the Pentagon in Washington, DC on October 6, 2021.
A Department of Defense plaque is seen outside the Pentagon in Washington, DC on October 6, 2021.
A Defense Department plaque is seen outside the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., on Oct. 6. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

The Biden administration’s long-anticipated review of the global U.S. military footprint, most of which will remain out of public view, is being panned on Capitol Hill for failing to move ahead with a Pentagon pivot toward dealing with a resurgent China. 

Defense officials unveiled the Global Posture Review, an audit of the Pentagon’s troop and weapons outlays around the world, in classified briefings on Capitol Hill earlier Monday. But aides left the briefings unclear that the nearly 10-month review did much to move the needle, after the Defense Department has been hamstrung by internal fights about whether to move more U.S. troops to the Pacific.

“The Global Posture Review appears to be almost a year’s worth of make-work,” a congressional aide familiar with the findings told Foreign Policy. “No decisions, no changes, no sense of urgency, no creative thinking. Lots of word salad.”

The Biden administration’s long-anticipated review of the global U.S. military footprint, most of which will remain out of public view, is being panned on Capitol Hill for failing to move ahead with a Pentagon pivot toward dealing with a resurgent China. 

Defense officials unveiled the Global Posture Review, an audit of the Pentagon’s troop and weapons outlays around the world, in classified briefings on Capitol Hill earlier Monday. But aides left the briefings unclear that the nearly 10-month review did much to move the needle, after the Defense Department has been hamstrung by internal fights about whether to move more U.S. troops to the Pacific.

“The Global Posture Review appears to be almost a year’s worth of make-work,” a congressional aide familiar with the findings told Foreign Policy. “No decisions, no changes, no sense of urgency, no creative thinking. Lots of word salad.”

Senior defense officials cautioned that the first year of a new U.S. administration was not the time to be rolling out major strategic-level changes, though President Joe Biden has signaled a renewed commitment to Asia. They insisted that those details were still to come in the Biden administration’s upcoming National Security Strategy and other reviews. 

“DoD’s posture review was never meant to produce major posture changes,” Becca Wasser, a defense expert at the Center for a New American Security, said in a tweet. “Rather, it sets the stage with allies & partners for gradual adjustments over time: expanded basing & capabilities in the Indo-Pacific and distributed basing in the [Middle East].”

Yet behind closed doors in Washington, there had long been frustration with the lack of new troop deployments in Asia, despite greater Chinese military muscle-flexing over Taiwan. Many of the details in the posture review had been previously announced by the Biden administration, such as rotations of fighters, bombers, and more U.S. troops to Australia for ground forces training and increased military construction on the Pacific island of Guam. Mara Karlin, who’s performing the duties of the Pentagon’s No. 2 policy official, said the United States would add logistics facilities and upgrade airfields in the Northern Marianas, as U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has sought for years.

Asked why the review is catching a bad rap in Washington, Craig Singleton, an adjunct fellow studying great-power competition with China at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, put it simply: “Well, because it sucks,” he said. “It does almost nothing to reposition for China.”

The Wall Street Journal first reported that improvements to airfields in Guam and Australia would help the United States move troops in and out of Asia to deal with a possible conflict. Among the previously announced changes are new aircraft and logistics deployments to Australia and the deployment of more forces to South Korea, including an attack helicopter squadron and an artillery division headquarters. 

But the directives are likely to cause frustration among officials and experts who worry that the intended Biden administration pivot to Asia isn’t moving fast enough—or making the strategic choices necessary to stick the pivot. The review would make no changes to U.S. military posture in the Middle East in the near term, a senior defense official said, with the Pentagon continuing to back the defeat-Islamic State coalition fighting in Iraq and Syria, though the Defense Department is set to shift to an advisory role in Baghdad by the end of the year. 

“You could argue that this was impacted by the Afghan debacle, so we need eyes and ears in the Middle East now more than ever, but I suspect that they would never have truly shifted resources to the Pacific,” said Singleton, who previously served in sensitive U.S. national security roles. “Too much parochialism and bureaucracy in DoD to make meaningful changes.”

The Pentagon offered no unclassified summary of the review other than anonymous and on-record briefings of the changes provided to reporters on Monday, and senior defense officials said most of the strategic audit would remain secret, citing a need to keep adversaries such as China in suspense and to brief U.S. allies. 

The administration offered few details in private, either, after briefing Capitol Hill in a classified setting. Aides who have complained that the Defense Department has been too reticent to increase the U.S. troop presence in the Western Pacific to counter China despite internal warnings grumbled that the effort amounted to almost a year’s worth of busy work and punted on most major strategic changes being mulled over by the Pentagon. 

But even though they acknowledged that specific changes from the review would be limited, officials insisted that it was an effort to reset the inner workings of the Pentagon after the chaotic final months of the Trump administration. 

“When this administration took office in January, we sought to reestablish a strategy-informed, coherent posture, decision-making process and restore healthy civil-military relations in the department,” the senior defense official said. “On a number of occasions in the previous administration, posture decisions were made or announced without a deliberate process. … We saw this in the announcements on Syria and Afghanistan, the approach to Iran, and the 25,000 active-duty force cap in Germany that the Trump administration implemented.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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