WASHINGTON (AP) – The Biden government faces a dilemma in rethinking the position of military forces around the world: how to focus more on China and Russia without retreating from long-standing threats from the Middle East – and making this change with Pentagon budgets potentially leaner.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a month-long “global stance” review a few days after taking office. He will assess how the United States can better organize and support its extensive network of troops, weapons, bases and alliances to support President Joe Biden’s foreign policy.
The review is part of the government’s effort to pave the way for military personnel still trapped in decades-long conflicts in the Middle East, facing stagnant or declining budgets and struggling with internal problems like racism and extremism.
Their outcome can have a lasting impact on the military’s first priority: ensuring that they are ready for war in an era of uncertain gun 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 government decision on whether to fulfill the previous government’s promise to withdraw entirely from Afghanistan this spring. And it is advancing separately from the high-cost issues of modernizing the strategic nuclear force.
Like the Trump administration, Biden’s national security team sees China, and not extremist militants like Al Qaeda or the Islamic State group, as the No. 1 long-term security challenge. Unlike his predecessor, Biden sees great value in the United States’ commitments to European nations in the NATO alliance.
This can lead to significant changes in the US military “footprint” in the Middle East, Europe and Asia-Pacific, although such changes have been attempted 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 halt what it called threats to regional stability. Biden has seen reminders of that problem in recent days with the violence in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It could also mean a Biden acceptance of the recent efforts of military commanders to seek innovative ways to deploy forces, with no permanent base ties that carry political, financial and security costs. A recent example was the visit of a US aircraft carrier to a Vietnamese port. Commanders see value in deploying forces into smaller groups in less predictable cycles to keep China out of balance.
Signs of change came before Biden took office.
In December, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke of his own view that technological and geopolitical changes advocate rethinking old ways of organizing and deploying forces.
The very survival of US forces will depend on adapting to the rise of China, the spread of technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics and the emergence of unconventional threats like pandemics and climate change, said Milley.
“Smaller will be better in the future. A small force that is almost invisible and undetectable, that is in a constant state of movement and is widely distributed – it would be a force that would survive, ”he said at a conference in Washington. “You will not accomplish any goals if you are dead.”
Austin made a similar and more restricted observation last month about the placement of US forces in Asia and the Pacific.
“There is no doubt 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,” wrote Austin in response to Senate questions asked earlier of your hearing confirmation.
Austin also noted his concern about competing with Russia in the Arctic.
“This is rapidly becoming a region of geopolitical competition, and I have serious concerns about Russian military growth and aggressive behavior in the Arctic – and around the world,” he wrote. “Likewise, I am deeply concerned about Chinese intentions in the region.”
This does not mean that we must abandon the large US military centers abroad. But it suggests more emphasis on sending smaller groups of troops on shorter rotations to non-traditional destinations.
This change is already underway.
The Army, for example, is developing what it calls the “Arctic-capable brigade” of soldiers as part of a larger focus in the Far North. This area is seen as a potential flash point as large powers compete for natural resources that are more accessible as the ice sheets diminish. Likewise, the Air Force is sending long-range B-1 bombers to Norway, a NATO ally and Russia’s neighbor, for the first time.
China considers itself an Arctic nation, but the United States’ main concern with Beijing is its growing assertiveness in Asia and the Pacific. In the view of the United States, China aims to build military force to stop or block any effort by the United States to intervene in Taiwan, the semi-autonomous democracy that Beijing sees as a renegade province that should eventually return to the communist flock.
A report by this month’s Council on Foreign Relations named Taiwan as the most likely spark for a US-China war, a prospect with dire human consequences that said “it should concern Biden’s team”.
“Millions of Americans could die in the first war in human history between two states with nuclear weapons,” said the report.
Washington also cites concerns about China’s efforts to modernize and potentially expand its nuclear arsenal, while refusing to participate in any international nuclear weapons control negotiations.
The sharp focus on China began during the Obama administration. The Trump administration went further by formally declaring that China and Russia, rather than global terrorism, were the main threats to the national security of the United States.
Some now question whether this change has gone too far.
Christopher Miller, who served as interim defense secretary for the last two months of Donald Trump’s presidency, said in an interview that he agrees that China is the main threat to national security. But he said American commanders in other parts of the world had told him that the focus on China was costing the necessary resources.
“So I thought it was time to look back on that and make sure that we didn’t create any unwanted consequences,” said Miller.