The U.S. Marine Corps is questioning whether it can implement the Obama Administration’s much-vaunted strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific.
“We are on our way…to a less than a 300-hundred ship Navy,” said General John M. Paxton Jr., assistant commandant of the Marine Corps. “We are on our way to a 175,000-man Marine Corps. Do we have enough people and enough ships to do it?”
The obvious answer is no. The Marine Corps says it needs 54 amphibious assault ships to do its job. That would be the number needed to deploy three Marine Expeditionary Brigades (MEBs), since each MEB requires 17 ships for a force of 17,500 Marines and all their gear.
But the Navy’s shipbuilding budget hasn’t been sufficient to meet combatant commander requirements for years, so the Marine Corps and Navy have had to settle for the ability to transport and deploy just two MEBs, an amphibious fleet of just 33 ships. The effect of sequestration has worsened this still further, forcing Marine Corps planners to adjust to the reality of fewer than 30 ships available worldwide, meaning the Corps’s actual ability to conduct a large-scale amphibious operation will amount to a mere 1.5 MEBs, or roughly a half-dozen battalions of Marines with their supporting aviation—presuming all amphibs in the Navy are brought together for a single operation!
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The “Asia Pivot” or “rebalance” has always been more hype than reality. The policy is a sound one only if sufficient resources are devoted to deploy the requisite military forces in the Pacific. Without this, it fails even on the public diplomacy score. Our friends, allies, and potential adversaries all know how to count. And well before sequestration, it was clear that the Administration was underfunding defense requirements in a way that would undercut its commitments—something Heritage analysts have amply pointed out.
Pacific Command forces are already being impacted by funding shortfalls. Marine Corps fighter squadrons used to have 12–14 aircraft available. Now, they usually have 12, but next year that may decrease to eight deployable aircraft per squadron. One in three U.S. Air Force combat aircraft worldwide are already grounded, and the Navy is reporting difficulties in its ability to maintain ships in the Pacific due to a lack of funding—a submarine and a guided-missile destroyer being the latest examples of critical platforms stuck in port.
Although “defining downward” U.S. military requirements is a time-honored tradition in Washington, it seems to be gathering speed. If transporting three MEBs is too expensive or difficult, then tell the military (or better yet, get them to tell you) that there is no longer a requirement, that it’s 19th-century thinking.
Or be honest about what it really means to say it can be done with an “acceptably higher risk,” as President Obama’s latest defense strategy did. As General Paxton asked, “If they are not ready and there is a major conflict, the nation must ask itself what kind of risk it is willing to take.”
Policymakers may see a reduced defense capability in an ever more dangerous world as an “acceptably higher risk,” but it’s not acceptable to the men and women in uniform or to their parents, nor should it be for our nation’s security.