As the historically minded will recall, back in 2012 the Obama administration declared that the United States “will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific.” That was the guidance the commander in chief gave to the U.S. military, the idea being that since, the peace of Europe was eternal and self-sustaining, and the Middle East was a mess made by George Bush, that the most important mission for the 21st century was to keep an eye on the Chinese, the “rising” great power.
Our Asian allies were very pleased by this, particularly the Japanese who had become a frequent target for expressions of Chinese nationalism incited by the government in Beijing. But the South Koreans, Southeast Asians, and the Australians – who had just published a defense white paper speculating about the retreat of the United States from the region – were likewise reassured when the U.S. Navy announced that it would base 60 percent of its ships in the Pacific. There will soon be 2,500 Marines based in Darwin, in northern Australia, too.
East Asia’s enthusiasm for this “pivot” – the term initially pedaled by the White House – has subsided substantially since then. In the part of the Pacific that matters most, the waters of the western Pacific from the Sea of Japan through the South China Sea to the Malacca Strait, the U.S. military is decreasing toward a vanishing point. Budget cuts are slashing the overall size of the armed forces and the wars of the Middle East remain a giant, sucking chest wound that demands attention, exposing the Pacific Pivot as all hat, no cattle.
A good way to measure this is to chart the deployments of the five aircraft carriers that comprise the backbone of the Pacific Fleet. Looking at the official Navy information catalogued by the website STRATFOR reveals how gaping the American absence has become. In the 32 months from May of 2012 through this December, there have been 12 months where there has been no aircraft carrier – none – in the area controlled by the 7th Fleet, the command that oversees the western Pacific. In only four of those 32 months have there been two carriers in the region; in such a large area, that’s probably the absolute minimum requirement for any kind of effective presence and deterrence. The numbers would be even worse but for the fact that the USS George Washington, which is based in Yokosuka, Japan, was constantly at work; alone it accounted for more than 80 percent of the total carrier presence in this period. Alas, the George Washington is about to undergo the periodic overhaul of its nuclear powerplant, a process that will take it out of service for about two years. Today’s 10-carrier Navy can’t come up with a substitute until next summer, when the USS Ronald Reagan may begin to operate from Japan.
This heavy use of the Yokosuka-based carrier has been necessary to offset the fact that two of the other Pacific fleet carriers, the Ronald Reagan and the USS John C. Stennis, have been in periods of extensive, if normal and predictable, servicing. But just as crippling to the Navy’s Pacific posture has been the need to participate in deployments to the Persian Gulf, a mission that occupied much of the Stennis’ time prior to maintenance and has also eaten up large slices of the Everett, Washington-based USS Nimitz deployments.
The carrier presence picture is mirrored almost exactly when it comes to Marine amphibious ships. The Pacific amphib fleet consists of five ships, with one based at Sasebo, Japan. The Marines were able to keep two of these “mini-carriers” in the 7th Fleet area of operations for only three of the 32 months, again relying on the Japan-based Bonhomme Richard to maintain the majority of the presence.
To be sure, carrier presence is not the only, or perhaps even most important, measure of naval power, let alone overall U.S. military power. Nonetheless, these numbers are strongly indicative. Where carriers sail, they are accompanied by a bevy of escort ships, including Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and attack submarines – also, with their Tomahawk cruise missiles, much in demand in the Middle East these days.