Sustaining Rebalancing in an Era of Fiscal Restraint

Interview with Thomas G. Mahnken
July 30, 2012

In January 2012 the United States announced that it would commence a strategy of “rebalancing” toward the Asia-Pacific, in light of the growing geopolitical importance of the region. However, this ambitious plan comes at a time when the United States finds itself facing severe financial constraints. In addition to previously announced cuts, the Department of Defense faces the challenge of implementing additional cuts required under the 2011 Budget Control Act (sequestration) for a total of approximately $950 billion in cuts over the next ten years. NBR asked Thomas G. Mahnken (U.S. Naval War College) about the prospects of effectively executing and sustaining the U.S. rebalance during a time of fiscal restraint.

As the United States executes its strategic rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific at a time of growing fiscal restraint, in what key capabilities will it need to invest? What programs, platforms, and weapons systems will it need to continue to develop, particularly in light of the growing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threat?

The need for the United States to pursue enduring interests in the Asia-Pacific region—defending U.S. territory, protecting its allies, ensuring the free flow of goods and services, and maintaining a favorable balance of power in the region—suggests three key tasks that the United States needs to perform. First, the United States needs to develop new approaches to presence. U.S. force structure in the region should move increasingly toward networks of capable surface ships as the most visible symbol of U.S. presence in the region. The United States should also continue to bolster its submarine fleet in the Pacific. Linking these combatants together will require resilient intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and robust command, control, and communications (C3) networks. This, in turn, will require the ability to exploit space and cyberspace.

Second, the United States will need to maintain its forward presence in the western Pacific to reassure allies and deter aggression. However, the character of that presence will need to change in order to be more survivable and hence credible. The United States should, for example, harden and diversify its bases in the region. There should be a balance between bases on sovereign U.S. territory, such as Hawaii and Guam, and those on allied territory, such as Japan and South Korea. Bases on U.S. territory guarantee access, whereas those on allied territory provide extended deterrence and reassurance.

Third, the United States and its allies should increase their ability to strike at a distance. Given the spread of precision-strike capabilities, systems with short range that are reliant on increasingly vulnerable fixed bases are likely to be of diminishing value in coming years. The United States should, for example, continue to develop the conventional prompt global strike system and a submarine-launched conventional ballistic missile. It should also begin fielding the next-generation bomber to provide a flexible, global strike capability. By bolstering its ability to strike precisely at a distance, the United States will not only strengthen deterrence but also force competitors to increase their investments in defense and expend resources on defensive capabilities that will not be available for offensive arms.

A sequester is set to go into effect on January 2, 2013, which will impose roughly $500 billion in additional defense cuts over the next ten years. How is the Department of Defense preparing to absorb or apportion these cuts? Is the entire defense budget open to these cuts, or are certain portions exempt?

The Defense Department has not publicly disclosed any planning to apportion these cuts. According to the provisions of the Budget Control Act, the president can exempt personnel costs from the mandatory budget cuts. It is unclear whether he will choose to do so, but personnel exemptions would only magnify the impact of the cuts on the remainder of the defense budget, including research and development, acquisition, and operations and maintenance.

How do U.S. allies in Asia view the current debate over defense spending? Does the climate of fiscal uncertainty and political gridlock diminish the United States’ credibility in the eyes of its allies or adversaries? How does this affect the U.S. position and interests in Asia?

The current debate over U.S. defense spending and calls to cut the U.S. defense budget undercut the Obama administration’s announced pivot to or rebalancing toward Asia. This was apparent in reactions in the region to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

The rise of China and Chinese military modernization, combined with constraints on the U.S. defense budget, mean that in coming years the United States is likely to face an increase in both the operational risk to its forces and the strategic risk to U.S. interests. It will take greater effort to protect our historic interests in the region. Failure to adjust the structure and posture of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific threatens to open up a widening gap between our capabilities and commitments.

However, if complacency in the face of growing threats would be unwarranted, so too would be despair. There is no need to accept a narrower conception of the American role in the world. The United States has it in its power to field forces that will safeguard U.S. interests at an acceptable level of risk. What is required first and foremost is the political will to explain not just the costs but also the benefits of a vigorous U.S. role in Asia, to seek adequate funding for an enhanced U.S. presence in the region, and to work with U.S. allies and friends to make that posture a reality.

How might relationships with U.S. allies in Asia change as a result of diminishing defense spending in the United States? What steps can Washington take to improve alliance capabilities and interoperability, reduce redundancy, and increase specialization, so as to better respond collectively in the event of a regional contingency?

There are a number of things that the United States should do to enhance alliance capabilities. First, it makes sense for Washington to seek new ways of reassuring U.S. allies and friends and generating collective responses to crisis and aggression. One way to do so would be through the development of a coalition ISR network in the western Pacific. Although information-sharing agreements exist between the United States and its allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region, most arrangements are bilateral. By contrast, a coalition architecture would be designed to be open to all: states would contribute ISR assets and would in return receive the common operating picture the whole network generated.

A coalition ISR architecture in the western Pacific would have several advantages. It would provide the United States and its regional allies and friends a common picture of activity in the western Pacific. Such a shared understanding may be a necessary precondition for collective action. An ISR network could also represent a significant deterrent to hostile action. It would be harder for an aggressor to act without being caught, and an attack on the network would amount to an attack on all its members.

Second, the United States should increase cooperation with allies on undersea warfare. The United States has enjoyed a hard-earned comparative advantage in undersea warfare for decades. Moreover, the United States is fortunate to have as allies such states as Great Britain, Japan, Australia, and Canada, all of which also have highly capable undersea forces. Washington should ensure that the United States and its Pacific allies retain a comparative advantage in undersea warfare. For example, Washington should encourage Canberra to develop the shore infrastructure that would allow U.S. nuclear attack submarines to operate out of or rotate through Perth and Brisbane. It should also facilitate cooperation with and among Asian states with diesel submarines and develop cooperative expertise in antisubmarine warfare. The United States should also offer to develop increasingly capable unmanned undersea vehicles with close allies. Finally, Washington should offer to lease or sell Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarines to Australia to replace the aging Collins-class attack submarines.

Third, the United States should expand its basing options in the Asia-Pacific region. Bases form a central pillar of U.S. presence, reassurance, and deterrence in the region. That being said, the risk to U.S. forward-based forces is clearly increasing. As the United States moves forward, it needs to balance the operational risk to its forces against the strategic risk of pulling back from the region. A balanced approach to basing should include hardening existing bases against attack. This is particularly important at main operating bases such as Andersen Air Base on Guam and Kadena Air Base in Japan. The United States should invest in hardened shelters as well as in rapid runway repair kits for each of its major bases in the Pacific theater. Hardening existing bases needs to be complemented by an expansion of the U.S. basing network in the region. The United States should also invest in an expeditionary basing capability.

Secretary of Defense Panetta recently said that sequestration is the “biggest threat to the health of our force.” Do you agree? How likely is it that a political compromise that forestalls or cancels sequestration will be reached?

I agree with Secretary Panetta on this issue. Both the magnitude and the form of the mandatory cuts called for in the Budget Control Act could endanger U.S. security. The across-the-board nature of the cuts in particular could have a devastating impact on U.S. force posture in the Asia-Pacific. I believe that job one for whoever is elected president this November will be working with Congress to avert the enactment of the act’s mandatory cuts to defense.

How will the debate over defense spending and cuts play out in the presidential election? How will the outcome of the election affect future defense expenditures?

Traditionally, national security has played a supporting role in presidential campaigns, and I would expect the pattern to hold this year. That having been said, there are important differences between President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney on defense. For example, Governor Romney has been critical of the Obama administration’s defense cuts, arguing that they have weakened the United States’ ability to defend American interests. He has called for an increase in defense spending over that envisioned by the Obama administration. Of particular relevance to Asia, Governor Romney is calling for a significant expansion of the U.S. Navy beyond the Obama administration’s plans, including increasing the ship-building rate from nine per year to fifteen. Elections do have consequences when it comes to national security, and I would expect this election to be no different.

This interview was conducted by Greg Chaffin, an Intern at NBR.