The commander of US military forces in Asia and the Pacific (PACOM), Admiral Samuel Locklear, told a congressional committee last week that he had halved his travel and that of staff officers to his command’s area of operations in response to the defense budget reduction known by the clumsy term “sequestration.”
That means slicing into a critical responsibility, which is to nurture alliances with treaty allies such as Japan and Australia, to cultivate partnerships with friendly nations such as Indonesia and India, and to dissuade or deter potential adversaries such as China from hostilities.
Most attention on the effect of the budget cutbacks has focused on hardware — canceling the deployment of ships and airplanes.
However, the crimp in what might be called software — tending to alliances and partnerships — can be equally damaging.
That nurturing and cultivating has become essential as the US has wearied of long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, seen government budget deficits and national debt, and feels the tug of isolationism. In short, Americans are turning to other nations to pick up more of the burden for collective security.
To accomplish this, personal relations are vital, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. Political and military leaders there want to see US admirals and generals face-to-face and have their staffs work directly with US officers.
Locklear told the House Armed Services Committee in Washington that the Pacific Command staff in Honolulu was “required to be out and active in 35 nations to do the things that we’ve been asked to do.”
They have two critical missions that call for personal attention: deterring potential adversaries and assuring friends.
As he has had to reduce travel from his headquarters above Pearl Harbor out to Asia and the Pacific Islands, the admiral said, “we’re 50 percent effective today.”
He added: “The road we’re on will undermine” the long-term undertaking.
The commanders of the army, navy, air force and marine components of the Pacific Command, charged with forging working relations with the service personnel of nations throughout the region, have ordered similar cuts or are figuring out ways to make comparable reductions in travel spending.
Following Locklear’s lead, Lieutenant General Francis Wiercinski, commander of army forces in the Pacific, is cutting his travel costs by 50 percent. The savings, said Jim Guzior, a spokesman at Fort Shafter, would come from reducing the size of traveling parties and cutting the number and length of trips.
“We are closely coordinating with our allies and partners to ensure they understand that while we may have to find some efficiencies, we will do all we can to maintain our key engagements,” Guzior said.
The commander of the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, is still assessing the impact of sequestration on planned travel, said Captain Robert Howard, a spokesman at Hickam Air Force Base. He said each trip was being checked case by case.
Overall, he said, PACAF’s operational and maintenance budget had been cut by US$103 million for this fiscal year. However, Howard asserted that “after 60 years of building relationships in this region, our alliances and partnerships bring with them years of mutual trust and respect.”
Admiral Cecil Haney, the Pacific Fleet commander, “continually reviews his critical travel requirements both domestically and internationally to minimize costs and maximize engagement value,” said Captain Darryn James, the fleet spokesman.
He said priority is given to “widely attended, multinational events ... as opposed to visiting countries individually” and costs are held down by curtailing US speaking engagements and limiting the number of people traveling.
For the marines in the Pacific, Lieutenant Colonel Brad Bartelt said: “We have not currently reduced the travel schedule” of the Pacific commander, Lieutenant General Terry Robling. However, the spokesman added that budget items are being evaluated as the marines manage pending budget impacts.
On the larger issue of the US security posture in this region, Locklear sought to inject caution into his testimony in Washington.
“For the next century,” he said, “for our children and our grandchildren, we have to get it right in the Asia-Pacific.”
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.