Dempsey: Threat of Conflict in Asia Increasing

U.S. Military decline hastens global instability

Gen. Martin Dempsey / AP
March 5, 2014

The risk of war in Asia will increase over the next 10 years as U.S. military forces struggle to maintain their edge amid declining budgets and increasing threats, according to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The dire assessment from Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman, is outlined in the Pentagon’s four-year strategy called the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) that was released Tuesday.

Dempsey stated in the review that he believes the U.S. military will continue to be the most advanced armed force in the world.

But he warns: "In the next 10 years, I expect the risk of interstate conflict in East Asia to rise, the vulnerability of our platforms and basing to increase, our technology edge to erode, instability to persist in the Middle East, and threats posed by violent extremist organizations to endure."

China was not mentioned by Dempsey as the source of a future conflict in Asia. But other U.S. officials have said Beijing’s large-scale nuclear and conventional military buildup, combined with warlike propaganda produced by state-run media and increasing aggressiveness in maritime disputes, has increased the risk of a war with Japan and other states. North Korea also remains a potential belligerent that could trigger a war.

The QDR has limited references to the threat posed by China, stating, "China will continue seeking to counter U.S. strengths using anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) approaches and by employing other new cyber and space control technologies."

Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told a Senate hearing Tuesday that China’s aggressiveness in Asia is a worry.

"We're concerned … by an increase in risky and tension-raising activities by China in the East China Sea near the Senkaku Islands including China's uncoordinated announcement of an air defense identification zone there," Russel said, adding that the problem is amplified by Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

The QDR report was released along with the Pentagon annual budget request to Congress of $495.6 billion in defense spending for fiscal year 2015 that begins Oct. 1.

The budget request must be approved by Congress. The Pentagon said it was based on the QDR.

"This is a budget that recognizes the reality of the magnitude of our fiscal challenges, the dangerous world we live in, and the American military’s unique and indispensable role in this country and in today’s volatile world," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in releasing the spending proposal.

Dempsey, in the QDR, said that in addition to the growing risk of an Asian war, he expects a future conflict to take place at a much faster pace and on a more difficult high-technology battlefield. Also, he said any U.S. overseas conflicts will no longer allow the U.S. homeland to remain "a sanctuary either for our forces or for our citizens."

Future conflicts also will likely begin in the new domains of cyberspace and outer space, rather than in the past when U.S. forces countered aggression by initiating strikes using air power or sea power, he said.

"We are likely to be surprised—pleasantly and unpleasantly—by the speed of technology proliferation, increasingly sophisticated systems being developed by potential state adversaries, the cleverness and persistence of terrorists, the ability to adapt our own acquisition programs and capabilities, and the vitality of the U.S. technology and economic cycle," Dempsey said. "Estimations of how and where we would fight a war or militarily intervene will also probably be largely wrong."

On Capitol Hill, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon (R., Calif.) criticized the QDR as based more on politics than strategy.

"In defiance of the law, this QDR provides no insight into what a moderate-to-low risk strategy would be, is clearly budget driven, and is shortsighted," McKeon said. "It allows the president to duck the consequences of the deep defense cuts he has advocated and leaves us all wondering what the true future costs of those cuts will be."

McKeon said he wants the Pentagon to rework the strategy so that it complies with the legal requirements of the four-year strategy review.

The report failed to fulfill the requirement of identifying what funds are needed to address evolving threats, did not extend its review to the required 20 years, and assumes "too much risk," McKeon said in a statement.

Dempsey said the defense review allows the "smaller and less capable" military to execute the strategy but "with higher risk in some areas," especially for the Army.

Geopolitics, new methods of modern warfare, increased foreign adversary capabilities, and defense cuts are forcing the military to "rebalance," Dempsey said. There has been a shift in focus from fighting counterinsurgencies to a more diverse spectrum of conflict.

In an apparent reference to China’s development of weapons that will block the U.S. military from operating in Asia, Dempsey said the military will need new capabilities to operate in contested areas, and forces for "forced entry" into the Asia Pacific.

Shifting forces to those new capabilities will be difficult and costly.

The higher risks for the military include more difficult conventional fights. "Operational plans cannot be executed with a large force that is not ready in time or a ready force that is too small," he said.

Military cuts also will make it more difficult to rely on allies for support in future conflicts.

"Our effort to build new partners—a core competence of each of our services—will be made more difficult by our own declining force structure," Dempsey said.

Also, foreign adversaries are building forces while U.S. forces decline. "Our aging combat systems are increasingly vulnerable against adversaries who are modernizing—many of whom have invested in leap-ahead technologies—making our ability to develop and employ leading-edge technologies, systems and concepts even more urgent," he said.

Meeting U.S. global responsibilities will be more difficult in the future as most U.S. weapons systems will be older and some U.S. military advantages will erode.

"Our loss of depth across the force could reduce our ability to intimidate opponents from escalating conflict," Dempsey said. "Nations and non-state actors who have become accustomed to our presence could begin to act differently, often in harmful ways. Moreover, many of our most capable allies will lose key capabilities. The situation will be exacerbated given our current readiness concerns, which will worsen over the next three to four years."

He called for "dramatic changes" in military forces, plans, posture, objectives, and concepts of war.

Central to both the budget and strategy are large-scale cuts in U.S. forces, including a reduction in Army forces to pre-World War II levels.

The Air Force budget calls for $4.6 billion for 26 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, while killing A-10 anti-tank jets and the U-2 spy plane.

Spending on Navy forces in the budget includes $5.9 billion for two Virginia-class attack submarines, $2.8 billion for two DDG-51 guided missile destroyers, $1.5 billion for three Littoral Combat Ships, and $3.3 billion for eight F-35s.

A total of 11 cruisers will be placed on "long-term modernization" that will reduce their near-term operations.

The Army will use its $120.3 billion to fund 32 active duty brigade combat teams, while cutting the force from its current 520,000 troops to between 440,000 and 450,000. The Army is killing its new Ground Combat Vehicle program and will retire Kiowa helicopters.

Funding for missile defenses includes $7.5 billion for the Missile Defense Agency and $5.1 billion for cyber operations.

Special operations forces will receive $7.7 billion to support counterterrorism and training missions.

The current budget is based on Congress’ two-year legislation to limit the effect of massive Budget Control Act defense cuts known as sequestration.

The cuts will resume in 2016 if no permanent legislative fix is found.

"Prolonged funding at sequestration levels would starve the department of funds needed for maintenance and training and for support of cutting-edge capabilities that provide the U.S. military with its technological edge," the Pentagon said of the sequester cuts. "Taken together, the impact of further sequestration-level funding would hollow the force. Overall our ability to carry out the defense strategy would be significantly reduced."