As it rethinks the positioning of military powers around the world, the Biden administration faces a conundrum: how to concentrate more on China and Russia without withdrawing from long-standing Mideast challenges and to make this change with potentially leaner Pentagon budgets.
A month-long “global posture” analysis was ordered by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin just days after taking office. It will determine how the U.S. can better organise and sustain its far-flung network of forces, arms, bases, and alliances to improve the foreign policy of President Joe Biden.
The analysis is part of the administration’s attempt to map a course for an army still trapped in decades-old wars in the Mideast, facing flat or shrinking budgets, and struggling with internal concerns such as racism and extremism.
Its result may have a lasting effect on the first priority of the military: ensuring that it is ready for combat in an age of unpredictable control of weapons. Links with allies and partners are also at stake, undermined in several cases by the “America first” approach to diplomacy by the Trump administration.
The analysis by Austin is closely linked to a pending administration decision on whether to fulfil the pledge made by the previous administration to withdraw entirely from Afghanistan this spring. And it advances separately from big-dollar concerns regarding the modernization of the nuclear strategic force.
Like the Trump administration, Biden’s national security team sees China as the No. 1 long-term security threat, not militant extremists like al-Qaida or the Islamic State group. Biden sees great importance in U.S. contributions to European nations in the NATO alliance, unlike his predecessor.
That could lead to major shifts in the U.S. military “footprint” in the Middle East, Europe and the Asia-Pacific, albeit with limited success such changes have previously been attempted. For instance, the Trump administration felt compelled to send thousands of additional air and naval forces to the Persian Gulf region in 2019 in an attempt to deter what it called regional stability threats. In recent days, with violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, Biden has seen reminders of this issue.
It may also mean supporting Biden’s recent attempts by military commanders to look for creative ways to deploy forces unattached to permanent bases that bear political, financial and security costs. A recent example was a visit to a Vietnamese port by a U.S. aircraft carrier. Commanders see value in deploying forces on less predictable cycles in smaller groups to keep China off track.
Before Biden took office, signs of reform were surfacing.
In December, Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke of his own view that the rethinking of old forms of organising and positioning forces is argued for by technical and geopolitical change.
U.S. forces’ very survival will rely on adjusting to China’s growth, the dissemination of technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics, and the advent of unconventional challenges such as pandemics and climate change, Milley said.
“In the future, smaller ones would be ideal. He told a Washington conference that a small force that is almost invisible and undetectable, that is in a constant state of movement, and is widely dispersed, will be a force that is survivable. “If you’re dead, you’re not going to achieve any goals.”
Last month, Austin made a comparable, narrower argument about the positioning of U.S. forces in Asia and the Pacific.
“In response to China’s counter-intervention capabilities and approaches, supported by new operational concepts, there is no question that we need a more resilient and distributed force posture in the Indo-Pacific,” Austin wrote in response to Senate questions raised in advance of his confirmation hearing.
Also, Austin noted his concern about competing in the Arctic with Russia.
“This is rapidly becoming a region of geopolitical competition, and I have serious concerns in the Arctic and around the world about the Russian military build-up and aggressive behaviour,” he wrote. “Similarly, I am profoundly concerned about China’s intentions in the region.”
That’s not arguing for leaving massive U.S. military centres overseas. However, it indicates more focus on the deployment of smaller groups of troops to nontraditional destinations on shorter rotations.
This change is underway already.
As part of an intensified emphasis on the High North, the Army, for instance, is building what it calls a “Arctic-capable brigade” of soldiers. As great powers fight for natural resources that are more available as ice packs recede, that region is seen as a potential flashpoint. Similarly, for the first time, the Air Force is sending B-1 long-range bombers to Norway, Russia’s NATO ally and neighbour.
China sees itself as an Arctic country, but its increasing assertiveness in Asia and the Pacific is the key U.S. concern for Beijing. China, in the U.S. view, tries to create military power to discourage or block any U.S. attempt to interfere in Taiwan, the semi-autonomous democracy that Beijing sees as a renegade province that must inevitably return to the communist fold.
This month, a Council on Foreign Relations study called Taiwan the most probable trigger for a war between the U.S. and China, a possibility with dire human implications that it said “should worry the Biden team.”
The study said, “Millions of Americans could die in the first war in human history between two states with nuclear weapons.”
Washington also mentions concern about China’s attempts to modernise and eventually extend its nuclear arsenal while refusing to engage in any talks on international nuclear arms control.
During the Obama administration, the sharpened emphasis on China began. The Trump administration went further by officially announcing that the top threats to U.S. national security were China and Russia, not global terrorism.
Some are now wondering whether this move went too far.
In an interview, Christopher Miller, who served as Secretary of Defense for the final two months of Donald Trump’s presidency, said he believed that China was a key threat to national security. But he said U.S. commanders elsewhere in the world told him that the emphasis on China was costing them the money they needed.
“So I felt it was time to rethink this and make sure we had no unintended effects,” Miller said.