Adm. Jonathan Greenert said Thursday that the Navy will continue to "rebalance" toward the Asia-Pacific region despite billions in budget reductions and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.
Greenert said at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) that nearly $1 trillion in funding reductions for the military over the next decade will result in canceled ship deployments, less training for forces, and delayed ship maintenance and procurement. Those cuts, stemming from budget and debt-ceiling fights in Congress since 2011 that produced sequestration, translate into $11 billion in cuts for the Navy this year and $14 billion next year.
The downsizing of forces could undermine the Navy’s traditional strategy of having a "surge-ready" capacity to respond to threats that emerge worldwide, he said. The Navy is potentially sidelining two of its three surge-ready carrier-strike groups and plans to cancel half of its surface ship capabilities next year.
"I’m about having forces and the right number that I can have organized, trained, equipped and ready," Greenert said.
"If we start losing them and their equipment—that’s the foundation."
Greenert added that he is working with his staff to transfer money to ship maintenance and purchase accounts and pursue compensation and benefit reforms as the Navy attempts to institute a "rebalance" toward the Asia-Pacific region. That strategy calls for shifting 60 percent of U.S. naval assets to the region by 2020.
However, Middle East conflicts such as the Syrian civil war continue to divert the attention and resources of the U.S. military. Five warships are positioned in the Eastern Mediterranean in preparations for potential strikes on the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz has also moved into the Red Sea.
Greenert said commanders have "a vast number of options" available to them for strikes in Syria, which would likely involve Tomahawk missiles that can be directed and targeted in flight. He declined to say whether such strikes would deter Assad from another chemical weapons attack or provoke a retaliation from his Iranian allies but added that "we’re postured to act accordingly."
Experts have criticized the disconnect between a planned "rebalancing" toward the Pacific while crises spread in the Middle East.
Michael Auslin, AEI scholar and expert on Asian regional security and political issues, wrote in a Monday column for the Wall Street Journal that situations like Syria will likely continue to siphon away U.S. military resources from the Pacific and raise the ire of China, another Syrian ally.
"While the administration was claiming a new era in U.S. foreign policy, the ghosts of crises past continue to disturb Mr. Obama's dreams," Auslin wrote. "Renewed violence in Iraq and the complexities of not losing all gains in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2014 were perhaps highest on the list of unfinished business. Yet more concerning were the brewing crises: Iran's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and the bloody Syrian civil war."
Critics have also questioned whether the military could afford the rebalancing during a time of financial strain. Greenert said the military might need a "supplement" to fund the potential operation in Syria, where an active carrier-strike group costs about $40 million a week to operate, a destroyer $7 million a week, and Tomahawk missiles about $1.5 million each.
Greenert defended the importance of a "surge-ready" Navy that currently has nearly 100 of its 285 ships deployed—numbers that could fall by 2020 if cuts are implemented.
"You’re getting a pretty decent bargain when you have a third of your Navy out and about and able to respond to a North Korean missile crisis in 72 hours," he said, offering an example of a contingency operation.
"This is what the American people are owed."