Defense Secretary Panetta has chosen some metrics for the Navy’s rebalance toward Asia that may be easier to achieve than they first appear. Even with that advantage, though, Pentagon leaders don’t yet seem to be on the same page about how to make it happen.
Take Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter and his late-July speech at the Asia Foundation:
As Secretary Panetta said, we intend to have 60 percent – historic high – of our naval assets based in the Pacific by 2020, a substantial historical shift. We will have a net increase of one aircraft carrier, four destroyers, three Zumwalt destroyers, ten Littoral Combat Ships, and two submarines in the Pacific in the coming years.
The Littoral Combat Ships are the heaviest part of that formula but, in percentage terms, they’re a wash. The Navy is planning for 20 ships in that fleet, so allocating 10 to the Pacific leaves another 10 in the Atlantic and the overall ratio unchanged. Meanwhile, one aircraft carrier and two submarines would only marginally adjust that ratio in the context of a Navy that’s several hundred ships strong.* (Their strategic impact is a completely different matter, of course. Moving them into the Pacific would be very significant.)
That leaves the destroyers. Carter’s comment is a little bit vague here – the three Zumwalts could be part of four total destroyers going to the Pacific, or they could be in addition to them. So the denominator expands by three, since the to-be-acquired Zumwalts will add to the fleet, and the numerator for the Pacific grows by either 4 or 7. A 1.16% swing in the ratio differentiates those two interpretations, but that turns out to be just a detail. The Navy doesn’t reach 60 percent in the Pacific under either scenario. It increases from 53.8% to 55.6% if the Zumwalts are part of the four destroyers being moved, or to 56.8% if they’re additive.
And it’s not just Panetta and Carter that seem somewhat disjointed. Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, may have gotten a bit cross-wise with the Secretary even while agreeing with the Deputy.
In setting the 60% standard, Panetta explicitly itemized six carriers in the Pacific. That’s the same distribution as today. Carter referred to “a net increase of one aircraft carrier,” though, and Greenert has told San Diego to expect its port to add one to the two it already has. Again, that doesn’t meaningfully move the Pacific/Atlantic ratio, but an aircraft carrier’s allocation is very potent strategic symbol for both the region losing it and the one gaining it.
There’s an important limit to how much just counting ships tells us about qualitative changes in posture. But the Pentagon itself chose the 60/40 split as a benchmark for the rebalance. Judging by the gaps between the Secretary, the Deputy, and the Navy’s Chief, some work remains to figure out how this standard will be met.
* The ship classes included in this analysis are carriers, amphibs, frigates, cruisers, destroyers, LCS, and subs.