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Andrey Gubin

PhD in Political Science, Associate Professor at IR Department, Far Eastern Federal University, Adjunct Professor at the North-East Asia Research Center, Jilin University, China

In March 2014, the US Department of Defense published another of its Quadrennial Defense Reviews. The review analyzes defense policy priorities in light of foreign policy “re-balancing”. It puts a particular emphasis on the US’s capacity to respond to challenges during a period of fiscal austerity.

In March 2014, the US Department of Defense published another of its Quadrennial Defense Reviews. The review analyzes defense policy priorities in light of foreign policy “re-balancing”. It puts a particular emphasis on the US’s capacity to respond to challenges during a period of fiscal austerity.

The Pentagon has to respond to the changing nature of external threats and must rely on any available opportunities to sustain US national interests. The ongoing shift in the “centre of gravity” of the system of international relations has increased the significance of smaller countries and non-state actors which do not yield easily to the logic of conventional military decision-making. As a result, the review suggests that the US will be looking for new ways to address challenges and act more promptly in order to sustain its role as a global power. Interestingly, the review does not give any consideration to the US applying non-sovereign instruments of influence, be it through non-profit organisations, private defense companies or military attaches.

The authors of the Quadrennial Defense Review 2014 stress in particular that since the US has become a Pacific power, the Pacific region is vital to the nation. The rapid pace of China’s military modernization, combined with a relative lack of transparency in bilateral relations, is viewed as a primary threat to security across the entire region. The Pentagon believes that any potential conflict can only be deterred through a multilateral security architecture based on ASEAN mechanisms, with Australia, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and India as key actors. Asia-Pacific countries generally seek to establish regional norms and strive for a stable military balance. However, according to US defense analysts, the key source of instability there is the North Korean nuclear programme, which serves as the main source of friction for all regional players. Interestingly, the review maintains total silence on the ASEAN+3 mechanism, despite its growing scope of cooperation. Obviously, shared economic interests may lead to the emergence of a predominantly Asian security dialogue with minimum US input.

The Quadrennial Defense Review states that the security in the immediate future will be shaped by a number of emerging global trends, both positive and negative. Unprecedented levels of global connectedness in technology, migration and media provide incentives for international cooperation. They, however, also open up new ways for asymmetric responses both by state and non-state actors. China, for example, is claimed to be more actively involved in cyber-operations against US defense and economic facilities. The Pentagon is also concerned by the use of high technologies to improve and advance biological weapons.

Significantly, Pentagon analysts believe economic capabilities to be the US’s key advantage in today’s world, given its global presence in economic processes, new technological discoveries in shale gas exploration, and shared interests with its leading trade partners. Nor does the defense agency underestimate the role of US military power in sustaining the nation’s interests. The emphasis is put on advanced technology employed by the hard power components and the professionalism of its military. There is, however, an impression that the authors of the review are also trying to justify budget cuts in defense and the more aggressive stance of US foreign policy.

According to the Quadrennial Defense Review 2014, US national interests fall into four core areas:

  • the security of the United States, its citizens and US allies and partners;
  • a strong, innovative, and growing US economy in an open international economic system that promotes opportunity and prosperity;
  • respect for universal values at home and around the world; and
  • an international order advanced by US leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges.

They also distinguish three key priorities in defense strategy.
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First, protecting the national territory. This includes not only responding to and deterring armed aggression, but also managing natural and man-made disasters. One of the vulnerabilities to the US homeland is believed to lie in the proliferation of missile technologies and the intentions of such countries as North Korea and Iran to use them. The US nuclear capability is its key safeguard against any attack on the US or its allies. Therefore, Washington will continue to maintain the efficiency of its nuclear forces, while reducing its strategic nuclear forces under the New START Treaty. The review notes that the United States is prepared to reduce the amount of deployed strategic warheads by another one-third below the levels mutually agreed with Russia and pursue talks on non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe. With cyberspace operations considered to be yet another source of attack against the US, the Pentagon intends to counter them with both technical and legal means, together with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. The Department of Defense will also continue to work on deterring and defending against direct attacks on US aircraft and sea vessels.

Through 2020, the US will implement the following measures to defend its homeland:

  • increasing the number of Ground-Based Interceptors (GBI) from 30 to 44, and deploying a second surveillance radar in Japan;
  • developing the Department of Defense Cyber Mission Force to counter cyberspace threats;
  • continuing Operation NOBLE EAGLE conducted by the US Air Force to patrol the country’s air space, in particular over major cities;
  • reinforcing coastal defenses and security off US shores; and
  • supporting civil authorities.

Note that there is no mention of any real and effective military adversary that is believed to be capable of delivering a strike against the country. The review does mention though the aggressive intentions of North Korea and Iran, although without any particular reasoning, and some transnational forces.

The second priority is to build a global security system. US Armed Forces are called upon to sustain national interests globally, given the new nature of threats in the modern world. The review stresses that the nation’s core interests lie in Asia Pacific, which is currently undergoing “rebalancing” in the foreign policy and military strategy domains. For this reason, the focus is on strengthening traditional security alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand. There is an emerging partnership with Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and some other countries in the region. The key areas of cooperation between the US and Pacific states lie in missile defense, cyber security, space exploration, maritime security, and natural and humanitarian disaster relief.

Note that the US Department of Defense points also to the extreme importance of building a sustained and substantive dialogue with China, including interacting with its People’s Liberation Army in areas such as counter-piracy, peacekeeping, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

The review talks about the growing significance of cooperation with regional international organizations, and strengthening ASEAN’s central role in the region through participation in institutions such as the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus.

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The US plans to reinforce its military presence in Northeast and Southeast Asia, Oceania and in the Indian Ocean. By 2020, 60 per cent of the US Navy fleet will be based in the Pacific, with its key assets concentrated in Japan. Marines will be relocated to Guam and Darwin (Australia). The US Air Force in the region will be acquiring new strike assets.

The US defense agency notes that with the completion of engagement in Afghanistan, forces will be available for use in Central and Southeast Asia and in the Indian Ocean to defend against terrorism and contribute to the stability there.

Moving on to the Middle East, the review points to the need to strengthen cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council and expand US missile defense capabilities in the region. There are 35,000 troops and naval and air assets deployed already in that region, but in the event of a crisis, the DoD is prepared to relocate additional forces and combat units. Significantly, the review suggests building a single air and missile defense zone in the Middle East.

In Europe, the review emphasizes the need to strengthen NATO countries’ capabilities to conduct allied operations. European nations are described as the closest allies helping to achieve stability in Africa and the Middle East. The review does not exclude possible cooperation with Russia to help maintain security in Europe, in particular through military exercises.

The text of the review does not suggest that the US plans to increase its military presence in Africa or Latin America, but will, instead, rely on the already available capabilities to maximize the impact of US presence on security.

The third pillar is about projecting power and winning decisively. What the review talks about is the capability of the armed forces to contain acts of aggression and pursue humanitarian assistance in any of the regions. It involves setting up combined units with input from different arms and services, capable of denying a “more advanced military adversary” in any region or space, including open space and cyberspace. It requires more focus on the development and procurement of new combat systems, including missile and air defense systems, fifth-generation fighters, cruise missiles and others.

Addressing the critical situation around North Korea’s nuclear programme, the Pentagon intends to rely primarily on its diplomatic channels with Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow. What it has in mind is assisting South Korea’s armed forces in deterring possible aggression and preventing provocations by Pyongyang. At the same time, Pentagon representatives do not indicate that the US is prepared to pursue a unilateral or multilateral operation against North Korea.

Significant attention is paid by the review to counteracting non-state actors including terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaida, Hamas or Hezbollah that may threaten US citizens all over the world.

The authors admit that the 20 years of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have not come without problems or mistakes which should become lessons learned for the new strategy. Several practical steps are proposed to enhance the efficiency of the US Armed Forces. Among the priorities is the positioning of additional forward-deployed naval forces in critical areas, such as the Asia-Pacific region, to achieve faster response times and additional limited presence. Response forces will be structured in accordance with a new principle relying on different combinations of naval vessels, aircraft and other assets. There will be more focus placed on joint combat training with partners overseas to increase interoperability. Of certain interest is the proposal to extend the life of ships and aircraft, and increase interoperability with allied forces.

The US Department of Defense is urging its key allies, including the EU, Gulf and Asia Pacific countries, to increase their contributions to their respective regional security and share responsibility for maintaining peace together with the US. Washington stands prepared to provide technological and logistical assistance for this purpose.

Note that the new US defence plans are to be implemented in a challenging fiscal environment: the 2012 ten-year fiscal plans provide for USD 50 billion cuts annually to defence appropriations. Less funding is bound to seriously affect plans to develop all types of arms and services. The US Air Force will concentrate on the multi-role, fifth-generation F-35 fighter which is to replace most of F-16 F/A-18 fighters; a new, stealthy, long-range strike aircraft; and on the KC-46A next-generation tanker/cargo aircraft. If the US Air Force budget cuts are sustained through 2018, the Air Force will have to retire 80 more aircraft, including the entire KC-10 tanker fleet and the Global Hawk fleet, suspend appropriations of the F-35 fighter, keep only about 10 Predator and Reaper drones, and implement deep cuts in flight hours.

Ground forces will remain an indispensable element of the ability to conduct combat operations and deter aggression, and the focus will be on its higher combat readiness. At the same time, the Regular Army will continue to reduce its force from 570,000 to 440,000 soldiers; the National Guard to 335,000; and the Army Reserve to 195,000 soldiers. Should the fiscal sequestration continue, reductions of another 15,000-20,000 soldiers will take place.

The key means of global power projection is undoubtedly the US Navy. It will retain its focus on the fleet’s increased capability to engage in any military conflict in any region. The funding will be concentrated on a few priority areas:

  1. Maintaining a credible sea-based component of the strategic deterrent, including development of new SSBN nuclear submarines with ballistic missiles; and
  2. Creating asymmetric combat systems and means of destruction (cruise and hypersonic missiles; carrier-borne strike aircraft; payload modules for naval vessels and submarines).

The Navy’s ship inventory will continue to grow into the 2020s responding to the specific security challenges. The useful service life of some of the ships will be extended into the 2030s, including that of Ticonderoga-type cruise ships. The plan is to continue building Arleigh Burke-type, series III, destroyers, although plans for three of such ships may be cancelled. With 32 Littoral Combat Ships already commissioned, no new contracts are foreseen until the ships can prove their worth – there seem to be doubts whether they could survive against a more advanced military adversary, especially in the Asia Pacific Region.

At the same time, if the sequestration of the naval budget continues, the USS George Washington aircraft carrier will need to be retired, and the number of carrier strike groups be reduced to ten. One nuclear submarine and three support ships may have to be removed.

Sequestration will also affect the Marine Corps, and the numerical strength will decrease from 182,000 to 175,000. 900 Marines that guard US diplomatic missions overseas may have to be retired.

The cuts will affect the bureaucratic superstructure of the armed forces: the Department’s major headquarters budgets will have to be cut by 20 per cent, which will allow savings up to USD 5 billion over five years.

To the authors of the Quadrennial Defense Review, military cuts may have negative implications for the country’s defense capability. Under the circumstances, Washington will have to cooperate more closely with its regional partners who will take over some of the US’s global responsibilities. The concern is not so much about the reductions in military assets or the slower introduction of new systems or modernization of the existing ones, as about the cuts that will affect training exercises, thus undermining the forces’ operational efficiency and its interoperability with allied forces. The Department of Defense is concerned by the potential reduction in the US military presence in Asia Pacific as the key region today. Matters are complicated further by the fact that the key allies – Japan, South Korea and Australia – are also cutting down their defense engagements, which may lead to a power vacuum and allow some of the conflicts to grow out of hand.

Of note is the fact that US defense analysts, without giving a name to the adversary, talk instead of the need for global power projection. With more emerging domestic challenges and defense budget cuts, “non-key” regions such as Africa and Latin America may leave the focus of attention. The review keeps silent about such regions as the Caspian Sea, South Caucasus or Central Asia, which may suggest that the Pentagon is not prepared at the moment to “take them under its wing”. The attention is all on Asia Pacific, as the center of economic life and the focus of differences between regional states. At the same time, the US will have to review its military presence in the region given that its ties with its traditional allies are no longer as solid as before, while new partners would rather diversify their cooperation systems and avoid giving priority to America alone. In this context, we may come to witness the “great exodus” of the US from a number of regions, and a transformation of the security system as a “system of bilateral safeguards” into a “a sum of responsible stakeholders”, allowing regional powers more autonomy. One may recall, in this light, G. Modelski and P. Kennedy predicting the end of the American cycle by the mid-2010s and the emergence of a new system of international relations by 2030.

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