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Addressing concerns about the status of the Asia rebalance, Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, assured the public on Thursday that the Pentagon is “very committed to that region.” So much so that “military leaders remain committed to carrying out President Obama’s pivot to Asia, despite ongoing unrest in other parts of the world.”
Lest we misconstrue his comments as disregard for those restless regions, the admiral promised that he and his fellow defense leaders won’t “take our eye off the ball of the rest of the world… We know we have security commitments around the world in the Middle East, in Africa, in Europe, and we continue to work mightily on those commitments.”
The problem is that, facing a shrinking defense budget back in 2012, President Obama chose to focus on the situation in Asia and disengage the US from military commitments in other regions. As AEI’s Gary Schmitt wrote in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed, the driving philosophy of the pivot was that “[d]efense resources could no longer support the long-standing US strategy of maintaining the capability to fight two major conflicts at the same time.” So, while the Pentagon may be watching the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, the administration has determined to not reengage our adversaries there – as recent events have made painfully clear.
To his credit, the admiral did acknowledge that budget realities endanger the future of the rebalance, saying that as long as sequestration “remains the law of the land, it’s going to be harder and harder” to commit to the pivot while keeping our eye on the ball in the rest of the world. Or, as Gary said in his column, “A true rebalancing is neither possible, given the state of today’s military, nor likely to be sustainable if planned defense cuts are not reversed.”
One final point about Admiral Kirby’s comments. As proof of US commitment to the pivot, he claimed that the US has 200 ships in the region. It being a press conference, he chose to omit his sources, but some quick, back-of-the-envelope calculations raise serious questions about their veracity. The US Pacific Fleet operates 94 surface vessels and 45 submarines, and another 9 big deck carriers and amphibious warships are currently in the region – for a total of 148 ships. This number is by no means definitive – there surely are other vessels steaming through the Pacific as we speak – but it certainly calls Admiral Kirby’s 200 vessel claim into question. More importantly, if the US Navy only has 150 surface warships or submarines in the Pacific but the spokesman feels compelled to call it 200, clearly our naval posture isn’t as strong as it needs to be.
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