If Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s proposed defence budget becomes reality, then the Administration's so-called 'pivot' or 'rebalance' to the Asia Pacific will have enough credibility to continue shaping regional expectations in a positive direction – at least on the military side (trade will be at least as critical and depends on the near-term politics of Trade Promotion Authority or 'Fast Track' legislation in Washington).
The Pentagon's proposal would shrink the US Army to about 450,000, a reasonable range to maintain a presence on the Korean peninsula and deter the North, even with the new challenges of dealing with nuclear weapons.
The Marine Corps will not shrink below its planned level, and given the maritime nature of the Asia Pacific military theatre and the increasingly important role of the Marines in engagement in Southeast Asia and Australia, that also is a good thing for the rebalance. The Air Force will continue buying F-35s and the Navy will keep 11 aircraft-carrier strike groups. The cut in Littoral Combat Ships (pictured) is not a terrible thing, given the limited capacity and high price tag on that particular ship.
The decision to build two submarines a year is a far more important factor, given the importance of continued US (and allied) dominance of the undersea domain as the PLA extends its anti-access/area-denial capabilities.
But to be honest, the Hagel proposal is only a place-holder. Much will depend on whether or not sequestration hits again and the Pentagon is forced to make massive and automatic cuts across the board because of a White House-Congressional impasse over the budget. Congress is also likely to push back on proposed cuts to benefits that would allow the sustained capacity Hagel plans.
The Navy will also have to decide whether it can really afford to refuel and refurbish the USS George Washington and thus maintain 11 aircraft carriers; that decision is avoided in the current proposal. Cutting the number of Ticonderoga class cruisers in half (essentially mothballing half) leaves just enough to cover each deployed carrier strike force, but raises the question whether the Navy is going to have to rely more on allies in the Pacific to provide the missile defence coverage needed at sea.
More than anything, US presidential politics in 2016 will be decisive in the trajectory of defense spending. For now, Secretary of Defense Hagel has handed President Obama a reasonable proposal to get his boss through summits in Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia in April. It is not the trajectory a McCain or Romney administration would likely have set, but it probably works. Let’s hope the White House and Congress embrace it.
Ed. note: This item originally posted at 8:52am, with some additional material added at 9:47.
Photo by Flickr user US Pacific Fleet.