Rebalancing the U.S. Military in Asia and the Pacific

According to some, the U.S. rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region in recent years is a bold strategic shift in national security policy. To many Chinese interlocutors, in fact, the military dimensions of the policy seem directed at them and smack of containment — and they resent it.

In fact, rebalancing represents only a modest realignment of American defense capabilities. Indeed, as the sequestration ax hits the Pentagon budget, whatever increases in capabilities rebalancing was designed to produce are at risk of being neutralized or even outweighed by looming cutbacks.

An informative way to examine the military scope of the rebalancing shift is to estimate its budgetary significance. Specifically, within the annual Pentagon budget of roughly $550 billion a year (excluding war costs), one might ask, “What* is the dollar magnitude of the rebalancing?’ In other words, roughly speaking, how much more of that $550 billion are we now allocating to the Asia-Pacific region than before?

How to calculate this figure? Although some of the steps listed below arguably predated the new policy, I would summarize the chief military effects of rebalancing as follows:

  • Rotating up to 2,500 Marines at a time through Darwin, Australia, on training and presence missions;
  • Adding 14 long-range missile defense interceptors to bases in Alaska (oriented toward the North Korea threat) and a THAAD missile-defense battery to Guam (these measures followed the main rebalancing decision but can be logically linked to it);
  • Adding perhaps three more attack submarines to be home-ported in Guam;
  • Basing four of the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore;
  • More generally, allocating 60 percent of total Navy assets to the Pacific Fleet rather than the 50 percent commonly devoted previously.

Each of these shifts can be translated into an average annual cost and then summed to determine a total estimate of the rebalancing’s military significance.

If a Marine unit of 2,500 were permanently based in Australia, it might represent some $500 million of annual expenditures, in terms of the average cost of equipping, training and paying that force for that time. Prorating some construction costs to establish facilities in Australia over, say, a 10-year period might drive that average yearly figure to $750 million.

The additional missile defense capabilities represent some $2 billion in one-time procurement costs — averaging over a 20-year period makes for $100 million a year — plus operating costs of an additional $200 million annually (these include salaries as well as routine maintenance and support). Together, that adds $300 million a year overall to the bill.

The average annual cost of a single Littoral Combat Ship might total $50 million. That makes for $200 million for the eventual deployment of four ships, or a total of $300 million once construction costs for berths in Singapore are averaged in, too. Placing three more attack subs on Guam might correspond to an average of $500 million a year. Taken together, these new homeport arrangements might have a dollar value of $800 million for a grand total so far of just about $2 billion in reallocated annual expense.

That leaves the big enchilada — the reassignment of naval assets so that 60 percent will now be in the Pacific. An upper bound on the dollar significance of this shift can be calculated as follows: Since the Navy’s annual budget is about $150 billion and some two-thirds of that (or $100 billion) is for the deployable Navy, we need to take 60 percent of $100 billion now and compare it with 50 percent of $100 billion before. The net is a $10 billion increase (though there is potentially some double counting here due to the attack submarine and Littoral Combat Ship estimates as previously noted).

The bottom line is this: In round numbers, the rebalancing may be in the process of swinging $10 billion to $12 billion or a bit more in annual Pentagon expenditures to the Asia-Pacific region.

This shift is hardly insignificant — though it hardly represents a tectonic change, either. Indeed, in recent years, China’s overall military budget has been growing about this amount each year, whereas the rebalancing was a one-time thing that is not presently scheduled to be followed up by additional policy changes.

On top of all that, sequestration is now promising to take $50 billion out of the Pentagon’s annual budget for the next decade (and the earlier, initial cuts from the 2011 Budget Control Act had already taken out a comparable amount previously). In rough terms, one might break down today’s Pentagon budget as being roughly one-third for Asia-Pacific matters, one-third for the Middle East and one-third for general purposes. Of course, all combat forces are flexible and movable, but in broad terms, this is still not a bad way to paint the overall picture. So one-third of that $50 billion sequestration hit might well come out of capabilities for the Asia-Pacific — maybe a bit less if we are able to protect this region’s capabilities selectively. Whatever the precise number, the key point is that sequestration will very likely cut about as much from our regional capability as the rebalancing will add.

The takeaways here are twofold. First, while the military capacities of a superpower still spending more than half a trillion a year on its armed forces should hardly be trivialized, and while we will modernize forces in the years ahead in ways discussed recently by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at the annual Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore, the rebalancing itself is not a huge military deal. Policymakers in Beijing need not strongly object and should not feel “contained.” Second, however, for those who think that sequestration is having no appreciable effect on American military posture, they should think again. Perhaps the rebalancing was not needed in the first place or was not needed for very long in any event. But it cannot be sustained on its original terms in the face of such steep Pentagon budgetary reductions, if they are sustained.