“Our nation is at a moment of transition,” said President Barack Obama on 5 January when he unveiled a new national defence strategy. This means the size of the US military will be reduced and some combat missions curtailed, notably mechanised ground combat in Europe and counterinsurgency in Southwest Asia. The aim is to focus more on other parts of the world, especially Southeast Asia and the Pacific, and on other objectives: cyber warfare, special operations and sea control. “The US joint force will be smaller, and it will be leaner,” said defence secretary Leon E Panetta. “But…it will be more agile, more flexible, ready to deploy quickly, innovative, and technologically advanced” (1).
According to Obama and Panetta, the strategy reflects altered circumstances at home and abroad. The US, weakened by the economic crisis, has a ballooning national debt. The department of defence must make spending cuts of $487bn over the next 10 years to comply with the 2011 Budget Control Act; and more cuts are possible if Congress fails to reach agreement on additional budget-saving measures in the months ahead. Abroad, military pressures are not decreasing despite the withdrawal from Iraq, and eventual escape from Afghanistan: the US faces new threats of potential conflict, for instance with Iran (see Iranian options) and North Korea, plus the growing spectre of a rising China.
At first glance the new defence policy can be seen as a pragmatic response to altered fiscal and geopolitical conditions, aimed at providing a smaller force with greater capacity to confront future dangers. On closer inspection, one can discern a larger strategic intent. Faced with the inevitable erosion of its status as sole superpower and the rise of ambitious rivals in Asia, the US seeks to perpetuate its global primacy by maintaining superiority in key areas of the world and critical forms of combat. In particular, it will aim to dominate the maritime edge of Asia, in an arc from the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and northwest Pacific. This will require the preservation of US superiority in air and naval warfare, and continued dominance in cyber-warfare, space technology and other specialised fields. Counter-terrorism will remain an important Pentagon function, but will be largely delegated to highly trained Special Forces equipped with killer drones and other high-tech paraphernalia.
Managing the contraction of overseas interests and commitments — or, as some would have it, managing the decline of empire — is never easy. Other great powers that have had to undertake such endeavours — Britain and France after the second world war, Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union — have found it exceedingly difficult. Often they have embarked on ill-advised military adventures, such as the 1956 Anglo-French invasion of Egypt (Suez) and the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — actions that hastened the collapse of empire, rather than delaying it. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, it was at the peak of its power; but the ensuing insurgency lasted so long and cost so much — an estimated $3 trillion — that the US has lost the will (and much of its capacity) to fight any new protracted ground wars in Asia. From here on, it is highly unlikely that Obama or any other American president, Democrat or Republican, would authorise a major operation akin to the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan (2).
Obama and his top advisers, cognisant of this history, are determined to avoid the strategic mistakes of earlier leaders. But if they recognise the folly of attempting to cling to all overseas commitments, knowing it would bankrupt the nation, they have no intention of presiding over a rapid contraction of foreign interests, seeing this as recipe for greater chaos and decline. Instead, they are seeking a middle way, choosing to reduce US commitments in some areas — Europe, in particular — while bolstering the nation’s capacity to prevail in areas deemed most important for America’s continued global supremacy.
This means dominating the western Pacific and containing Chinese power. “In many respects, the broader Pacific will be the most dynamic and significant part of the world for American interests for many decades to come,” said Deputy Secretary of State William J Burns last November. “It already includes more than half of the world’s population, many of its most important economies, key allies, and emerging powers.” For America to remain strong and prosperous, Burns indicated, it must concentrate its energies in this area and ensure that China does not gain power and influence to America’s disadvantage. “As Asia undergoes profound changes, we need to develop the diplomatic, economic, and security architecture that can keep pace” (3).
This new “architecture” has many dimensions, military and not. On the diplomatic front, Washington has bolstered its ties with Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, and reinstated formal relations with Burma. The White House is also seeking to invigorate US trade with Asia, and pushing for the establishment of a regional trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This is implicitly aimed at countering the rise of China and its influence in Southeast Asia. By reinstating ties with Burma, for example, the US gains a voice in a country where China, until recently, had few competitors; the proposed TPP would exclude China on technical grounds.
Alongside these economic and diplomatic moves are significant military initiatives. For Asian states to grow and prosper, American strategists believe, they must enjoy unhindered access to the Pacific and Indian Oceans (along with connecting waterways such as the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea) in order to import essential raw materials (especially oil) and export manufactured goods. As Burns explained in November, “Asia’s rise has been so dramatic that it is not just remaking Asia’s cities and economies — it is redrawing the geostrategic map. To give one example, half the world’s merchant tonnage now passes through the South China Sea.”
By establishing naval dominance in the South China Sea and adjacent waterways, the US could exercise a form of latent coercive power over China and the other states in the region, much as the British navy once did. American naval strategists have long been arguing for such a stance, claiming that America’s singular advantage lies in its ability to control the world’s major sea-lanes — an advantage enjoyed by no other power. It now appears as if the Obama administration has embraced this outlook (4). This was clearly implied in the moves Obama announced during his visit to the region in November. In spite of budget cuts, he said in Canberra: “We will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region” and will be “enhancing our presence in Southeast Asia.” This will involve more frequent deployments by US warships and military exercises in the region. In addition, Obama announced the establishment of a new US military base at Darwin, on Australia’s north coast, and increased military aid to Indonesia (5).
Presence and deterrence
Implementation of this grand geopolitical vision has obvious implications for the development of military policy, and this is clearly reflected in the strategic policy unveiled by Obama and Panetta in January. “As I made clear in Australia,” Obama said, “we will be strengthening our presence in the Asia-Pacific [region], and budget restrictions will not come at the expense of that critical region.” Panetta added: “The US military will increase its institutional weight and focus on enhanced presence, power projection, and deterrence in the Asia-Pacific” (6).
Although the policy document itself does not identify which specific military components will be favoured, it is clear that emphasis will be placed on naval forces — especially aircraft carrier battle groups — as well as advanced aircraft and missiles. Thus, while the US army will see a reduction in its total strength from approximately 570,000 troops today to 490,000 in 10 years’ time, Obama has vetoed plans for any reduction in the navy’s carrier fleet. Also, the US will invest substantially in weapons aimed at defeating potential adversaries’ “anti-access/area denial” (known as A2/AD) capabilities — the planes, missiles, and ships designed to overpower US attack forces (especially aircraft carriers) in contested areas. Because China is expected to enhance its capacity to strike American naval forces operating in the South China Sea and other areas on its periphery, US forces will be equipped with greater defences against these so-called A2/AD capabilities.
As the new Pentagon blueprint puts it: “In order to credibly deter potential adversaries and to prevent them from achieving their objectives, the United States must maintain its ability to project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged” — a clear reference to the East and South China Seas, as well as waters off Iran and North Korea. In these areas, it is claimed, potential adversaries “such as China” will use “asymmetric means” — submarines, anti-ship missiles, cyber warfare — to defeat or immobilise US forces. Accordingly, “the US military will invest as required to ensure its ability to operate in anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) environments” (7). This means that the US will place top priority on dominating the maritime periphery of Asia, even in the face of opposition from China and other rising powers.