The state of Obama’s Pacific pivot

If its 2016 defence budget is any indication, the US still has its sights set on Asia. What will that mean for US leadership elsewhere?
By: /
March 11, 2015
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Attention has recently (and rightly) been focused on security challenges in Europe and the Middle East. Russia’s “hybrid warfare” in Ukraine has raised the spectre of a strategic rivalry with the former superpower. Meanwhile, the rise of the so-called Islamic State on large swaths of Syria and Iraq has triggered not only another U.S.-led military intervention, but also what amounts to a renewed “global war on terrorism” — even if such terminology remains anathema to those currently in the White House.

Both a revanchist Russia and the Islamic State cannot be dismissed as anything other than a serious challenge to the West. Indeed, the Obama administration has rightly devoted increasing attention to both problems.

Yet what do these developments really mean to Obama’s Pacific “pivot” or “rebalance,” introduced with much fanfare during his first term?

Interestingly, critics and supporters can likely agree on the answer – not much. The former has always seen the pivot as being largely rhetorical rather than substantive, while the latter can still point to important American initiatives in the region, from the signing of new rotational basing agreements with Australia and the Philippines to the declared goal of stationing the majority of American air and naval assets to the region.

My own view leans towards pivot optimists, in recognition of some of the concrete military elements of rebalancing and its strategic and fiscal underpinning. This does not mean the pivot is without problems, especially given the high cost of recapitalizing America’s air and naval fleets and budgetary pressure of the 2011 Budget Control Act’s spending caps, with the latter raising the threat of sequestration. But it does mean that there is an almost inextricable logic for the United States to focus on this region.

The reason for this logic is as simple as it is powerful – the strategic imperative of dealing with (and perhaps confronting) a rising China. Fiscal problems do not negate such a perspective. Indeed, as any student of strategy can understand, a reduction in means often forces one to prioritize and recalibrate ends.

The pivot carries global implications that could very well outlast the current administration. On one hand, it potentially heralds a United States more aloof from security developments outside of the Pacific, with potentially unforeseen consequences. On the other hand, rather than helping to manage China’s “peaceful rise,” the pivot could just as easily be a harbinger for greater strategic competition between the United States and its Asian near-peer competitor. Already there are hints of just such an action-reaction dynamic.

As such, it is critically important to understand whether the administration remains committed to this rebalancing effort, especially since many of its champions — Hillary Clinton, Kurt Campbell, Chuck Hagel, among others — have left the scene.

Budget Priorities

One potentially useful indicator can be found in the recently released 2016 defence budget, as Foreign Policy magazine recently hinted at but did not thoroughly explain. For one, the US$585 billion budget entails particularly large allocations for procurement. Capital-intensive services like the U.S. Navy (USN) and U.S. Air Force (USAF) are the primary beneficiary of this largesse. Both services are largely seen as the military backbone for any pivot, with the U.S. Army and (to a lesser extent) Marines destined to play a supporting role in this expansive maritime environment.

The procurement projects themselves tell a similar story. For instance, the USN will grow from 271 ships to 282 by 2016, with the planned goal of 306 vessels by 2020. Its fleet of cruisers will be undergoing phased modernization, thereby ensuring 11 vessels with their formidable air warfare capability — critical for fleet protection in a high-threat environment like the West Pacific — are kept until the 2040s. The USN will also take possession of three Littoral Combat Ships, a self-deployable blue-water littoral warship designed to counter mines, submarines, and swarms of small ships in an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) environment. Four are already forward deployed to Singapore, and one can expect more will be stationed in this theatre.

Moreover, the U.S. Navy plans to maintain its two-a-year build rate for its Virginia-class attack submarines, widely seen as a critical means to maintain its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) edge in the Pacific, including in the littoral zone where China has a strong anti-surface warfare capability but limited ASW. This undersea fleet will also feature new stealthy features, while effort is being taken to accelerate the incorporation of the Virginia Payload Module to give these new vessels greater missile capacity. With the addition of a land-attack capability, submarines would provide one of the few means to take out shore-based components of China’s strike-reconnaissance complex.

To be sure, fewer destroyers will receive a critical Aegis upgrade owing to the high cost of the Ohio-class SSBN replacement project, also prioritized in this year’s budget. Yet it is hard to deny the strong push towards precisely the mix of capabilities — air defence, ASW, stealth, and land-attack — needed to ensure continued sea control in the Pacific and counter China’s effort at sea denial and A2/AD.

A similarly important role is enshrined for the USAF, which will finally begin development of its Long Range Strike Bomber designed to offset counter-stealth systems, allow for conventional stand-off strikes in more contested airspace, and be less reliant on bases increasingly vulnerable to Chinese anti-access missile attacks. The backbone of the USAF, and indeed the naval aviation arm of the USN and U.S. Marines, continues to be the F-35, which will benefit from an increase of its budgetary outlay to acquire 57 aircraft — a fact seen to potentially herald scaled up production of these stealth aircraft.

Critics will be tempted to criticize many of these projects — e.g., the F-35’s uncertain capacity for air superiority, prospective cost overruns of the new bomber, the firepower/survivability of the Littoral Combat Ship, or that these measures are not sufficient to offset China’s accelerating production of air and naval platforms. Yet it is difficult to deny the 2016 budget remains procurement-heavy, with a sizable 14 percent increase for new weapon systems favourable to the USAF/USN and with direct usability in the Asia-Pacific theatre..

A more fundamental criticism is that the budget has consciously gone beyond mandated spending caps, and is therefore in danger of being rejected. Yet, on one hand, it still represents an important indicator that Pacific rebalancing remains a core precept of the Obama administration. On the other, even if the budget gets reduced, this does not necessarily spell the end of the pivot. Rebalancing is primarily a matter of priority, and this strategic/fiscal logic hints that other theatres may be forced to bear the brunt of reduced defence outlays. The same could also be said of the U.S. military’s more manpower-intensive services.

The United States appears intent on continuing with its strategic rebalancing towards the Pacific. Equally notable is the fact that it comes at a time when Washington must contend with an aggressive Russia and ongoing military operations in the Mideast, which represent emergent and competing priorities than those envisioned in the Pacific pivot.

Yet harder choices are undoubtedly in the offing. Fiscal pressure will continue to beget greater selectivity in commitments and capabilities. The perceived need to shift to the Pacific will be increasingly be tested by developments in other regional theatres, which might be seen as “near-term challenges” like Ukraine and Iraq but will be pressing nonetheless. The U.S. may have little choice but to “lead from behind” in these other locales, which for other countries could mean more burden-shifting than burden-sharing and a higher cost to free-riding.

Close allies like Canada would do well to be ready for such an eventuality. Hard choices may not just be a matter for the United States.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the CDA Institute.