Pentagon could shift focus to Asia-Pacific

The Pentagon is considering investing more of its funding in military platforms for the Asia-Pacific region and less on tools for counterinsurgency, defense sources say. 

The change in thinking is being spurred by a soup-to-nuts strategy review at the Pentagon that was initiated last spring to help the Defense Department navigate budget cuts.

Several defense insiders said the review has led officials to downgrade the importance of conducting large-scale stability operations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The review’s early findings are the latest signal that the Obama administration is recalibrating its foreign and national security policy from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific.

The evolving shift will place a premium on military capabilities like ships and long-range aircraft, defense sources told The Hill, and make armored vehicles and lightly armored ships less important.

This will have “negative implications” for the Army’s slice of the Pentagon budget pie down the road, one defense source said, while making the Navy and Air Force more relevant.

The department’s 2013 budget plan, due to Congress in February, will be the first blueprint from the Obama administration showing how it plans to implement funding reductions.

The review means weapon programs like a new Air Force long-range bomber and the Navy’s new nuclear-powered submarine should survive the $400 billion in cuts the military must make under the August debt deal, defense sources said.

But the strategy review might not produce all good news for the Navy, with several sources saying a ship designed for conflict in shallow waters might fall under the budget knife.

“Programs that are not suitable for the Western Pacific environment, such as heavy armor and the lightly armored Littoral Combat Ship,” said Lexington Institute analyst and industry consultant Loren Thompson, “are getting a close look as possible sacrificial lambs in the push for savings.”

Sources also said the strategic assessment will confirm fears about cyber threats to military networks — especially from China — driving monies toward defensive and offensive cyber tools. 

Whether any major program changes will be made in the department’s 2013 budget plan remains unclear. 

That’s largely because that plan “will come at the beginning of an election year,” said Center for American Progress analyst Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official. “I would expect to see big changes in the 2014 budget, after the election.”

While there is a growing sentiment that the Army’s budget will take a hit, one Senate aide-turned-analyst noted in a report released Friday that the Army bought a considerable amount of combat gear during the last decade.

“Despite the cancellation of three major future acquisition programs, the Army actually modernized its forces, buying two new fleets of combat vehicles — Strykers and [Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles], and upgrading virtually the entire inventory of its Bradley fighting vehicles and Abrams tanks to state-of-the-art digital technology and communications,” states a summary of a report prepared by Russell Rumbaugh, a former Senate Budget Committee aide and now a Stimson Center analyst. 

“The service also dramatically expanded its stocks of support vehicles and small arms,” Rumbaugh concluded. “Its ability to modernize was substantially enhanced by the use of supplemental funding the service received because of the wars.”