- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A senior Pentagon official let slip this week that the administration’s commitment to the pivot to Asia is under review because of large-scale defense spending cuts.

“Right now, the pivot is being looked at again because, candidly, it can’t happen,” Katrina McFarland, assistant defense secretary for acquisition, said at a defense conference Tuesday.

The comments appeared to undermine one of the Obama administration’s most important foreign and defense policies: the pivot, or rebalance, to the Asia-Pacific region after the military withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ms. McFarland’s frankness immediately upset senior Pentagon officials. Within hours, after the Army Times first reported her comments, she issued typical Washington clarification of unwelcome news.

Meanwhile, China this week announced its largest increase in military spending in decades with an annual budget of $132 billion. The Pentagon says that figure is likely up to three times smaller than actual spending.

The figure represents a 12.2 percent increase over last year and follows more than a decade of double-digit spending increases.

The Pentagon element of the pivot is the air-sea battle concept, which calls for closer Air Force and Navy cooperation against China’s advanced weaponry known as “anti-access, area denial” forces. They include anti-satellite missiles, cyberwarfare forces, anti-ship ballistic missiles and other high-tech arms designed to push the United States out of the region and prevent it from helping allies such as Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines.

Questionable budget support is the latest setback for the Pentagon’s rebalance. The military focus of the pivot was scaled back earlier in favor of diplomatic efforts and increased regional military exercises — under pressure from pro-business policymakers who fear the pivot will upset relations with China, defense officials have said.

The limited military component for Asia includes adding a fourth attack submarine to Guam, rotating 2,500 Marines to Darwin, Australia, and putting a small number of littoral combat ships in Singapore. Other pivot features are limited to increased technical spying and missile defenses. Plans to station 60 percent of naval forces in Asia were announced under the George W. Bush administration but claimed by Obama officials as a new initiative.

Ms. McFarland’s clarification was issued through a Pentagon spokeswoman in a statement that sought to explain that her comments were made in response to a question about how the 2015 defense budget would affect the pivot.

Ms. McFarland insisted her comments simply repeated what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last week, that the shift to Asia will require the military to “adapt, innovate, and make difficult [budgetary and acquisition] decisions to ensure that our military remains ready and capable,” adding that the $496 budget request for fiscal 2015 will facilitate it.

“The rebalance to Asia can and will continue,” she said.

The statement, however, did nothing to clarify whether a review of the Asia pivot is underway.

Questions ensued on Capitol Hill during hearings Tuesday and Wednesday, and two other officials did not deny a review of the Asia pivot is underway.

Navy Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said he “wouldn’t completely agree” with Ms. McFarland. In addition to military forces, he noted, the pivot includes allied activities and trade agreements.

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