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.
“We’re moving forward with the aspects of rebalance,” he said.
“The real question is whether or not the force that Congress will eventually buy to give us, is it adequate for the security environment that’s changing,” the admiral said, noting that the region has “changed dramatically.”
But he did not deny that funding remains a problem.
“Whether or not we can resource to meet the challenges and remain the pre-eminent guarantor of security in the Pacific area, I think that’s the question,” the four-star admiral told the House Committee on Armed Services.
Earlier, David Helvey, deputy assistant defense secretary for East Asia, repeated the clarification talking points produced by the Pentagon, that the shift to Asia would continue. He added “that is not to say resources don’t count.”
“Our resourcing will enable us to uphold our commitment to the region, including a strengthened posture and presence and ensure the U.S. preserves its status as the pre-eminent military power in the region,” Mr. Helvey told the Senate Committee on Armed Services.
THE SECTARIAN THREAT
The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East told Congress on Wednesday that violence is expanding between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the Middle East, and warned that Syria’s conflict is producing a generation of terrorists.
“We are seeing a significant increase in ethno-sectarian violence in the Middle East,” Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander of the U.S. Central Command, said in prepared testimony before the House Committee on Armed Services. “More so than in the past, groups are coalescing around ethnic or sectarian issues rather than national identity.”
Sectarianism is fracturing regional governments and militaries with Sunni and Shiite populations, including Iraq.
“If allowed to continue unabated, this type of regional sectarian behavior soon could lead to a decadeslong sectarian conflict stretching from Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad to Sanaa,” the four-star general said.
Gen. Austin described the conflict as “the most difficult challenge that I have witnessed in my 38-year military career.”
“What started as a backlash against corruption and oppressive authoritarian rule has now expanded into a civil war,” he said, adding that the three-year conflict has become a “dynamic stalemate.”
U.S. intelligence estimates of the number of foreign jihadists in Syria rose from about 800 to 1,000 in March 2013 to 7,000 fighters today, Gen. Austin said.
“This is alarming, particularly when you consider that many of these fighters will eventually return home, and some may head to Europe or even the United States better trained and equipped and even more radicalized,” he said.
The terrorists in Syria are exploiting sectarian divisions, and the instability threatens to “embroil the greater region into conflict,” Gen. Austin said.
He said an “Iranian threat network” made up of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Qods Force, Iranian Ministry of Intelligence agents, and regional surrogates and proxies such as Hezbollah has significantly increased activities in Syria.
On Syria’s chemical arms, Gen. Austin said that despite threats of military force, the Bashar Assad regime has missed several milestones of its promised chemical weapons disarmament.
“The region is more dynamic and volatile than at any other time,” he said, warning that what happens in the coming year will affect the global economy, vital U.S. security interests and the security of U.S. partners.
Record lows along with snow and ice this winter have not deterred the Pentagon from incorporating the Obama administration’s agenda for global warming into its latest strategy report.
The Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon’s blueprint for funding and priorities, contains a dire assessment of the effects of global warming. According to the review, which was made public Tuesday, global warming will produce terrorism.
“Climate change poses another significant challenge for the United States and the world at large,” the report states. “As greenhouse gas emissions increase, sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating.”
As a result, the four-year review said, the global warming will “devastate homes, land, and infrastructure.”
“These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions — conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence,” the report says.
President Obama last month announced plans to create a $1 billion fund to deal with climate change while cutting defense spending by tens of billions of dollars.
Columnist Charles Krauthammer criticized the climate change policies advocated by Mr. Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry as shortsighted. He also said the leaders fail to understand Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“They imagine the world as a new interconnected world where climate change is the biggest threat and they are shocked that the Russians actually are interested in territory,” he stated in a recent column.
• Contact Bill Gertz at @BillGertz.