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Pentagon rethinking military positioning around the world, focus on China

The review is part of the administration's effort to chart a path for a military still caught in decades-old Mideast conflicts, facing flat or declining budgets, and grappling with internal problems

Pentagon | Lloyd Austin

AP  |  Washington 

Sen. Tim Kaine, Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin
Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin, a recently retired Army general, elbow bumps Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., as he arrives for a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill

The Biden administration faces a conundrum as it rethinks the positioning of military forces around the world: How to focus more on China and Russia without retreating from longstanding Mideast threats and to make this shift with potentially leaner budgets.

Defence Secretary ordered a monthslong global posture review just days after taking office. It will assess how the United States can best arrange and support its far-flung network of troops, weapons, bases and alliances to buttress President Joe Biden's foreign policy.

The review is part of the administration's effort to chart a path for a military still caught in decades-old Mideast conflicts, facing flat or declining budgets, and grappling with internal problems like racism and extremism.

Its outcome could have a long-lasting impact on the military's first priority: ensuring it is ready for war in an era of uncertain arms control. Also at stake are relations with allies and partners, weakened in some cases by the Trump administration's America first approach to diplomacy.

Austin's review is closely related to a pending administration decision on whether to fulfill the prior administration's promise to fully withdraw from Afghanistan this spring. And it is advancing separately from big-dollar questions about modernizing the strategic nuclear force.

Like the Trump administration, Biden's national security team views China, not militant extremists like al-Qaida or the Islamic State group, as the No. 1 long-term security challenge. Unlike his predecessor, Biden sees great value in US commitments to European nations in the NATO alliance.

That could lead to significant shifts in the US military footprint in the Middle East, Europe and the Asia-Pacific, although such changes have been tried before with limited success.

The Trump administration, for example, felt compelled to send thousands of extra air and naval forces to the Persian Gulf area in 2019 in an effort to deter what it called threats to regional stability. Biden has seen reminders of this problem in recent days with violence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It might also mean a Biden embrace of recent efforts by military commanders to seek innovative ways to deploy forces, untethered from permanent bases that carry political, financial and security costs. A recent example was a US aircraft carrier visit to a Vietnamese port. Commanders see value in deploying forces in smaller groups on less predictable cycles to keep China off balance.

Hints of change were surfacing before Biden took office.

In December, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke of his own view that technological and geopolitical change argue for rethinking old ways of organizing and positioning forces.

The very survival of US forces will depend on adapting to the rise of China, the spread of technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics, and the emergence of unconventional threats like pandemics and climate change, Milley said.

Smaller will be better in the future. A small force that is nearly invisible and undetectable, that's in a constant state of movement, and is widely distributed that would be a force that is survivable, he told a Washington conference. You're not going to accomplish any objective if you're dead.

Austin made a similar, narrower point last month about the positioning of US forces in Asia and the Pacific.

There's no question that we need a more resilient and distributed force posture in the Indo-Pacific in response to China's counter-intervention capabilities and approaches, supported by new operational concepts, Austin wrote in response to Senate questions posed in advance of his confirmation hearing.

Austin also noted his concern about competing with Russia in the Arctic.

This is fast becoming a region of geopolitical competition, and I have serious concerns about the Russian military buildup and aggressive behavior in the Arctic and around the world, he wrote. Likewise, I am deeply concerned about Chinese intentions in the region.

That doesn't argue for abandoning the US military's large hubs overseas. But it suggests more emphasis on deployments of smaller groups of troops on shorter rotations to nontraditional destinations.

This shift already is underway.

The Army, for example, is developing what it calls an Arctic-capable brigade of soldiers as part of an increased focus on the High North. That area is seen as a potential flashpoint as big powers compete for natural resources that are more accessible as ice packs recede. Similarly, the Air Force is sending B-1 long-range bombers to Norway, a NATO ally and neighbour of Russia, for the first time.

China considers itself an Arctic nation, but the main US concern with Beijing is its growing assertiveness in Asia and the Pacific.

In the US view, China aims to build the military strength to deter or block any US effort to intervene in Taiwan, the semi-autonomous democracy that Beijing views as a renegade province that must eventually return to the communist fold.

A Council on Foreign Relations report this month called Taiwan the most likely spark for a U.S.-China war, a prospect with dire human consequences that it said should preoccupy the Biden team.

Millions of Americans could die in the first war in human history between two nuclear weapons states, the report said.

(Only the headline and picture of this report may have been reworked by the Business Standard staff; the rest of the content is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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First Published: Wed, February 17 2021. 11:12 IST