NEW YORK - US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the major portion of US naval power will shift to the Pacific by 2020 as part of the Pentagon’s new “pivot to Asia” strategy. Though not totally unexpected, this news has caused quite a stir across Asia and raised tempers in China.
However, there’s rather less to this redeployment of naval forces than meets the eye. The US Navy has long kept half of its warships, aircraft, and logistics vessels in the Pacific. The new plan will see a modest increase in US naval forces in Asian waters; the ratio of Pacific to Atlantic naval units will increase to 60/40 or slightly more.
More of America’s 11 attack carriers will sail the Pacific. The Marine Corps, with its own air wings (“the Navy’s army” as wags call it), will increase its presence in the Pacific theater.
A 2,500-man US Marine expeditionary force is being stationed in remote northern Australia. It is far enough from China to be of little military use, but close enough to raise tensions with Beijing and Jakarta. Its mission, besides bracing Aussie spirits, is uncertain.
But US grand strategy is clear. Just as the US sought to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War by surrounding it with American allies and bases, so Washington plans to do with China.
America is creating a sweeping arc of allies and bases that begins in Singapore, and moves northeast to the Philippines, then Taiwan, Okinawa, Japan, and South Korea, neatly bottling up China’s expanding naval forces. India is being encouraged to build powerful naval forces that can threaten China’s oil routes to the Mideast and keep its navy out of the Indian Ocean.
Other US navel forces – the Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet, and units patrolling the Indian Ocean - will support the US 7th Fleet that has ruled the western Pacific since 1944.
Shifting naval units from the Atlantic to Pacific is not a major undertaking for the US. After the severe decline of Russia’s once mighty Red Banner Northern and Baltic fleets, there is no longer any major naval threat in the Atlantic. The days when packs of Soviet submarines were poised near Iceland to break into the North Atlantic to cut North America’s links with Europe are long gone.
The Mediterranean is an American lake.
But even with the new Pacific redeployment, the US Navy will be hard-pressed to maintain its former domination of the region.
America’s navy has shrunken to around 310 warships and 3,700 aircraft from the 600 ships planned during the 1980’s. Even so, the mighty US Navy remains larger than the next eleven navies combined. As a French admiral told me, the US Navy’s budget exceeds France’s total defense budget.
China’s rapid development of anti-ship missiles, submarines, space-based sensors, and a new anti-carrier ballistic missile, the DF21-D, increasingly alarms the US Navy and may force its attack carriers to operate far from Asia’s coasts. In fact, huge aircraft carriers are ever more vulnerable to attack and will eventually be made obsolete by drones and missiles.
However, naval forces are no longer the primary expression of America’s power. The US Air Force has dominated much of the non-communist globe since the 1950’s and serves America’s strategic interests in the same way the Royal Navy imposed the British Empire’s military and commercial power. Air power has played the decisive role in all of America’s military victories since World War I.
The Pentagon plans to strengthen its Pacific air power. This likely includes re-establishing US air bases in the Philippines and Australia, and expanding air bases in Guam, Okinawa, and South Korea.
America has been at war for decades. Its aircraft and warships are aging rapidly. Equally threatening, Congress may force deep military spending cuts as deficits worsen – at a time when the US military is being ordered to keep China bottled up on the Asian mainland.
China need only build its military power close to home. The United States must project and maintain its naval and air power 10,000 km across the Pacific Ocean, a hugely expensive, complex undertaking that gives cash-rich China an important, even decisive advantage.