As President Obama has hastily drawn down forces in Iraq and Afghanistan to meet arbitrary timelines, he has taken the opportunity to ramp up rhetoric on a strategic military shift to the Asia–Pacific region. He recently made it clear in the new defense strategy guidance that military focus will be directed toward emerging threats in the region and stressed that security needs will drive the budget, contrary to recent concerns that fiscal constraints have directed miserly defense spending. In spite of this rhetoric, the defense budget has been cut dramatically during Obama’s presidency. As an editorial in The Washington Times recently commented, “Talk is cheap. An emerging debate over the Navy’s future reveals the price America will pay for slashing defense.”
A shrinking U.S. Navy contradicts the Administration’s pledges for increased presence in the Asia–Pacific region. No one is debating that American naval presence in the region is a key component of both U.S. and global security. This is particularly evident in China’s increasing efforts to assert its “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea. Yet Obama has failed to address these concerns through the budget process. In fact, the need for a more robust navy will only increase if his guidance is implemented. The U.S. fleet, amidst a host of defense issues in need of attention, cannot atrophy any further.
The aircraft carrier fleet is an asset that should be of particular concern. There is a possibility that soon the fleet may fall to nine ships—below the congressionally mandated requirement of 11. Meanwhile, China has recently begun sea trials on its first aircraft carrier, and its officials have expressed a requirement of at least three carriers “so we can defend our rights and our maritime interests effectively.” While China has claimed in the past that it intends to float a navy only to protect its own territorial waters, an aircraft carrier program signifies only one thing: power projection. Taking this into account with the disputed waters in the South China Sea, one can assume that China has higher aspirations than merely a coastal security fleet. This reinforces the need for a strong U.S. carrier fleet in the years to come.
For all the talk of an increased focus on East Asia and the Pacific, there appears to be a divide between national security aspirations and what the U.S. Navy can afford. If President Obama wishes to follow through on pledges of a greater Pacific presence, he must either somehow overturn much of the defense slashing he has implemented or attempt to loot other Defense accounts to fund a sustainable blue-water Navy. Instead of continuing to cut defense to give the illusion of fiscal responsibility, perhaps Obama should consider matching rhetoric to reality.