ASIA-PACIFIC: Less Troops Need Fewer Transport Ships and Planes (Update)

February 2, 2012 at 11:58 pm 5 comments

Pacific Overtures

Updates to correct dropped words and garbled sentences.

The Obama administration’s budget request for 2013 won’t be public for another two weeks, but last Thursday (Jan. 26) Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sketched a broad outline of what the Pentagon will be seeking from Congress in Fiscal Year 2013 (which starts Oct. 1).

Dempsey and other Pentagon officials have taken pains to explain to reporters that budget cuts in the Defense budget are being shaped by the president’s Strategic Guidance – and not just by the $487 billion in cuts over the next 10 years that Congress is demanding under the Budget Control Act of 2011.  That law requires across-the-board federal spending cuts of over $1 trillion if Congress can’t come up with a plan to cut that much from the budget. Lawmakers have about a year to find a solution or the Pentagon will have to cut another $500 billion from its budget over the next 10 years.

Pentagon plans call for retiring aging C5-A Galaxy cargo planes. Air Force photo

But some of those cuts – a number of aging Air Force cargo planes and planned Navy transport ships – seem to be at odds with that guidance, which calls for defense planners to focus their attention on the Asia-Pacific area as well as the Middle East.

This is where planners “think the potential problems will be in the world,” Panetta told reporters at last week’s briefing. Three weeks earlier, President Barack Obama outlined the results of a defense strategic review, noting “we will be strengthening our presence in the Asia-Pacific, and budget reductions will not come at the expense of that critical region.”

Under a 2006 agreement with Japan, as many as 8,000 Marines are slated to move from Okinawa more than 1,000 miles to Guam by 2014. There have been reports in Japanese and U.S. media, that some of those troops might move even farther east to Hawaii. A smaller presence in much of Asia begs the question: How will U.S. forces be able to react quickly to developments across the wide Pacific — with fewer means of transport?

The planned spending cuts in the 2013 budget request include retiring 27 C-5A heavy cargo transport jets and 65 of the oldest C-130 cargo aircraft – a smaller turbo-prop transport aircraft. That will still leave the Air Force with 52 modernized C-5Ms and 318 C-130s as well as 222 jet-powered C-17 cargo aircraft.

The budget outline also calls for buying eight fewer Joint (Army-Navy) High Speed Vessels in the next five-year, Future Years Defense Program. The ships would be able to carry 600 short tons of cargo or personnel 1,200 miles at an average speed of 35 knots. The budget plan also calls for letting the delivery of a new large deck amphibious ship – essential for Marine expeditionary forces – slip by a year. Two smaller amphibious ships would be retired early and constructing their replacements would be delayed.

A Joint High Speed Vessel underway. Photo courtesy of Austal

But a Pentagon spokesman says there’s reason to be less concerned about how the cuts in defense spending will affect transporting troops and equipment: a reduction in the force size means fewer transport planes and ships will be needed.

The Army and Marine Corps will be shrinking — by 72,000 for the Army and by 20,000 for the Marines — over the next five years, says Navy Capt. Jack Kirby, adding that they and their equipment are the Air Force’s “biggest consumer of air mobility.”

“If you have fewer troops and fewer pieces of equipment and logistical supplies that need to go with them in your force, then you can afford to sacrifice some of your air mobility requirements,” Kirby told a Defense bloggers’ roundtable late last week.

The same goes for the Navy, which will still have 280 ships on hand, said Kirby, the deputy defense secretary for media operations.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t inherent risks inreducing the Defense Department budget, Kirby added. “I’m not at all saying there isn’t risk in any of these plans. There is. But we believe we’ve mitigated that to the best that we can.”

Additionally, the Marines will have a presence in northern Australia and the Navy will also have a presence in Singapore. And the Philippines – which forced the U.S. to close down its facilities at Subic Bay naval base and Clark Air Base back in the 1990s – is having second thoughts about some sort of U.S. military presence in the neighborhood.

Manila — like the governments of other countries that rim the South China Sea — has been jangled by increasingly tense disputes with China about who controls those waters and the mineral wealth believed to lie beneath them.

In late January, the Philippine government proposed closer military ties with the United States including more joint military exercises and allowing more U.S. troops to rotate through the former U.S. Territory.

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Entry filed under: National Security and Defense, Washington, Weaponry and Equipment. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. D S  |  February 6, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    If your reduced troops are situated further out of area, and expected to cover more ground, then in fact they may need more transport capability.

    Reply
    • 2. John M. Doyle  |  February 6, 2012 at 2:38 pm

      That’s a point I asked about at the Blogger’s Roundtable, but the Pentagon folks seem to think they’ll have enough fast-moving transport to move the smaller number of ground forces in the future.
      I wonder about the number of amphibious ships for the Marines, however. They’ve said they need at least 33 amphibs to transport two Marine Expeditionary Brigades to two separate conflicts. The Navy only has 31 (and some claim it is even less than that when you throw in vessel retirements and delayed replacements).

      Reply
  • 3. D S  |  February 6, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    Thanks for the update. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

    Reply
  • 4. WASHINGTON: Air Force Needs and Wants « 4GWAR  |  March 20, 2012 at 10:15 am

    [...] Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz can expect to be asked how they square their plans to cut strategic cargo lift aircraft with the Pentagon’s shift in strategic focus to the vast Asia-Pacific region. (See 4GWAR Feb. 2, 2012) [...]

    Reply
  • 5. jjowee  |  July 23, 2012 at 11:33 pm

    I’m not militarily or diplomatically savvy so this may sound stupid to you all but I am truly curious if all these information should not be disclosed so publicly

    Reply

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