Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is traveling in Japan, China, and New Zealand this week as part of an ongoing effort to reinforce our rebalance to Asia. His oft-repeated commitment to adding 10 percent of the Navy to the Pacific – from 50 percent to 60 percent – is almost certain to come up in those conversations. To date that’s the most tangible metric of the shift on offer.
It’s also subject to a few limitations. More than half of the Navy’s major ships already are homeported in the Pacific, giving this adjustment an appearance of being less sizeable than claimed. And there seems to be some disjoint within the Pentagon about which ships will change homeport to get us the rest of the way to 60 percent.
These are details, though. What they point to is the larger difficulty in trying to parse US military investment, including the US naval fleet, by region. Two organizational realities contribute to this difficulty.
“Region” translates into military parlance as “Geographic Combatant Command.” Pacific Command, like all of the others, does not have independent budget authority from Congress. As a result, it does not own people or equipment, including a fixed percentge of Navy ships.
Instead, geographic combatant commands issue “requirements” for forces based on how they assess their area of operations. Those requirements are deconflicted by the Joint Staff and Office of the Secretary. The Navy and its sister services then function as force providers as part of their statutory mission to organize, train, and equip the military.
How the Joint Staff and Office of the Secretary coordinate geographic combatant commanders’ requirements can adjust at any time and for a wide array of reasons. The forces provided by the services can change just as fast.
To apply that concept, the Navy is global and its ship rotations are flexible. Ships homeported in the Pacific can support Central Command requirements, for instance, and ships homeported elsewhere almost certainly would surge into the Pacific should crisis arise. Counting homeports neglects physical location. But counting physical location, to the extent its possible at all, is ephemeral and discounts how the force laydown can shift when needed.
So the real issue is that this metric is not nearly as tangible than it sounds. For those of us in Washington trying to quantify the rebalance, that’s a problem.
From a diplomatic perspective, though, it may not be. Rebalancing to Asia ultimately is about reassuring allies and signaling to China that this region will remain a priority for the military even as its budget declines. Rhetoric that is firm, consistent, but malleable serves that end without imposing a commitment on the military that it may be unable to meet. No surprise if it’s the latter that matters most to the Pentagon.