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The Pentagon’s Pivot to Nowhere

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"Pivoting to Asia.” It’s the centerpiece of the Pentagon’s strategic guidance report. Subtitled “Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” the report insists that the U.S. “will of necessity rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region.”

So it’s out with the old-fashioned preoccupation with Europe and the Middle East [No problems there, right?], and in — militarily, economically and diplomatically — with the Far East.

But there’s a problem. We’re not alone. China is pivoting to Asia, too.

On Sunday, Beijing announced an 11 percent increase in military spending. The message was loud and clear: China will not let President Obama’s rhetoric about amping up American influence in Asia go unchallenged.

It is doubtless that China will invest in exactly the capabilities best calculated to give its military a decisive advantage in key regional disputes from the Taiwan Strait to the South China Sea, thereby diminishing the influence of the U.S. military in the Pacific.

Along the way, China will get more bang for its military buck (or, rather, yuan). That’s because when it comes to influencing Asia, China enjoys the advantage of what military strategists call “internal lines of communication.” Asia is Beijing’s backyard. It doesn’t have to cross half the world to get its ships, planes and troops into posture.

China has another advantage. It has to worry only about Asia. But Washington needs to defend the American flag wherever it flies and American interests wherever they are materially significant. Since we still boast the world’s largest economy, there are few places — from the Arctic to the Indian Ocean — we can afford to ignore.

But wait, there’s another problem with the administration’s pivot. It’s pretty much all talk. The White House certainly is putting no money where its mouth is. Yes, it announced that it would send more Marine Corps and Air Force members for rotational tours in Australia. But the Pentagon has identified no permanent increase for military force in Asia.

In private, officials confess that the forces for Australia will be “globally sourced.” Translation: They’re not sure where the troops will come from, but they’ll just grab a few and assign them there for six months at a time. It’s like a game of three-card monte. Indeed, rather than add capability, these new missions will only place greater strain on a smaller force.

In fact, the new defense strategy may leave the Pentagon unable to meet existing treaty obligations. The war plan for North Korea (OPLAN 5027) calls for deploying 690,000 U.S. ground troops, 160 ships and 2,000 aircraft within 90 days. If we draw down troops to the levels envisioned by Mr. Obama, that deployment would tap out just about the entire Army and Marine Corps.

Under the Obama drawdown, the U.S. can pivot to Asia only by taking much greater security risks elsewhere.

The only way to pivot to Asia without incurring unacceptable risk is to make sure that, as we pivot, we stay ahead of China in all the domains of competition. That means beefing up our assets in space, cyberspace, missile defense and nuclear weaponry.

America can’t pivot prudently on the cheap. Even Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta recently acknowledged that 75 percent of the planned budget cuts will erode vital military capabilities — ships, planes and people.

Nor is it necessary to make Hobson’s choices. In 2011, the Heritage Foundation laid out a long-term proposal that would balance the budget in 10 years and significantly reduce the federal debt without raising taxes. This plan, called “Saving the American Dream,” would fully fund defense for decades.

We achieve these goals by making large, responsible reductions in non-defense spending and replacing our highly complex tax code with a far simpler, growth-promoting system of taxation.

This nation can return to prosperity, and government can meet its obligation to provide for the common defense. Indeed, with reasonable defense budgets, the Pentagon won’t have to pivot toward Asia — because there would be enough defense to go around.

James Jay Carafano is director of the Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.

First appeared in The Washington Times

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