Less money, less faith in US ‘pivot’

By Khanh Vu Duc and Duvien Tran 

The United States’ military of the 21st century will be leaner, not by strategic choice but rather fiscal necessity. The new US defense budget aims to reduce army personnel to levels not seen since before World War II. While a heavily indebted US must learn to do more with less, its strategic partners around the globe, including in Asia, must likewise downgrade their expectations and boost their burden-sharing. 

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a research institute focused on global security issues, 4.4% of US gross domestic produce was spent on defense in 2012, a slight dip from the decade-high 4.8% spent in 2009 and 2010. Even at this reduced level, military spending was still US$689 billion, or about 19% of the total federal budget. Under the new budget proposal, spending will be reduced to $496 billion. 

The public is war-weary after the extended and inconclusive campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and defense is widely seen as a budgetary line item conducive to savings. In a 2012 survey conducted by the Stimson Center think tank, respondents were unanimous in their desire to slash military spending, with proposed cuts amounting to an average of $103.5 billion, or about 18% of the 2012 budget. Those cuts were far higher than those put forward by either Republicans or Democrats in congress. 

Unveiled on February 24, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s new defense budget goes beyond cutting back on wasteful spending. Budget reductions will force lawmakers to consider how best to spend limited resources. Lawmakers came under fire in 2012 by allocating funds to build new M-1 Abrams tanks the army neither requested nor needed. The army said at the time it could save taxpayers $3 billion if the Pentagon held off on repairing, refurbishing or making new tanks for three years. 

The army, which will bear the brunt of the announced cuts, will be reduced from 522,000 soldiers to 440-450,000 by 2019, slightly lower than the standing levels before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Air Force will also be required to retire some of its aircraft, including the U-2 spy plane of Cold War fame and A-10 Thunderbolt II ground-attack aircraft. Other outmoded equipment will also likely be retired under the cuts. 

With fewer troops and equipment, America’s military and political leaders must chart a new course for their armed forces and role in the wider world. The US military will have to learn how to do more with less, in a belt-tightening challenge that is already being studied by army planners. But while the US learns to live with a leaner fighting force, what will the lower outlays mean for its allies and partners, particularly with respect to Washington’s so-called “pivot” policy towards the Asia-Pacific? 

A smaller standing army should not necessarily be construed as a decline in military capability or effectiveness. Future battles will be fought and won through the greater use of technology as opposed to brute strength and overpowering numbers. Recent improvements to drone technology have allowed US forces to dispatch unmanned aerial vehicles greater distances and strike targets at lower cost than conventional aircraft. 

Still, there are certain new strategic realities that the US and its allies must face. For those Asia-Pacific countries that had hoped Washington’s refocus towards the region – outlined in “pivot” policy plans to shift 60% of US naval assets to the Indo-Pacific by 2020 – would shield them from China’s increasing assertiveness, the new reduced budget will no doubt have given them pause. 

One example: the US Navy will have to make do with 32, instead of an earlier proposed 52, of its new Lockheed Martin-built Littoral Combat Ships (LCS). Designed to operate close to shore, the LCS USS Freedom was deployed to Singapore from April to November 2013 with plans to deploy up to four more of the vessels by 2016. This shift was made despite Hagel’s reservations about the vessels’ effectiveness in combat. The USS Freedom developed technical problems in Singapore just hours before it was to participate in a joint naval exercise in Brunei last November. 

Despite that glitch, it is expected that 16 LCS will be assigned to the Navy’s Pacific Fleet by 2021, a deployment aimed at maintaining the US’s forward posture in the region. Moreover, the Navy will continue to maintain its global fleet of 11 aircraft carriers.

With any conflict in the Asia-Pacific, especially the hotly contested South China Sea, likely to take place on the high seas, America’s naval might is still undisputed though increasingly challenged by China. Although not yet matching in capabilities, China’s construction of a second aircraft carrier in addition to the Liaoning it purchased from Ukraine demonstrates Beijing’s resolve to one day contest the US Navy’s current free roam of the Western Pacific. 

Just as Washington must re-evaluate its military’s future missions and commitments, so too must its regional allies and partners adjust their strategic expectations of the US. Under the presidency of Barack Obama, the US has shed the previous George W Bush administration’s aggressive “follow me” posture for one more reserved and founded in consensus-building. 

For countries like the Philippines or Vietnam, whose disputes with China over territorial and maritime possessions continue to fester, the new reality is that they can no longer sit on the sidelines hoping to hide under a US security umbrella. Rather, they will be expected to shoulder a greater share of the burden in preserving security and stability in their claimed waters. 

The US has already goaded Japan in that direction. Additionally, although not considered a traditional Pacific power, Canada has joined the US in increasing security cooperation in the Asia-Pacific by signing on to the Asia-Pacific Cooperation Framework at the 2013 Halifax International Security Forum. 

Streamlined American armed forces may not be a bad thing over the strategic long-run. The trickle-down effect coming from a leaner US military could be the formation of new coalitions of like-minded nations that together assume greater responsibility for their own security while at the same time bolstering familiarity among US regional allies. 

Such a process is already underway with Japanese Prime Minister’s Shinzo Abe’s proposed “democratic security diamond”, a multilateral strategic alliance ultimately aimed at encircling China. To secure the high seas between the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific and to curb China’s increasing assertiveness in the region, Abe encouraged greater cooperation among Australia, India, Japan, and the US through its bases in Hawaii. 

In his statement at a North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels, Hagel remarked that European leaders must renew investment in their respective militaries. The US has not abandoned Europe, but an indebted Washington is increasingly encouraging erstwhile allies to contribute more to defense. In light of the impending military budget cuts, America’s allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific would do well to take note. 

Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. Duvien Tran is a special research associate at VDK Law Office in Ottawa focusing on foreign policy, planning, and South China Sea security issues.

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