The administration of US President Joe Biden faces a conundrum as it rethinks the positioning of US military forces around the world: How to focus more on China and Russia without retreating from longstanding threats in the Middle East — and to make this shift with potentially leaner Pentagon budgets.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered a months-long “global posture” review just days after taking office.
It would assess how the US can best arrange and support its far-flung network of troops, weapons, bases and alliances to buttress Biden’s foreign policy.
The review is part of the administration’s effort to chart a path for a military still caught in decades-old conflicts in the Middle East, facing flat or declining budgets, and grappling with internal problems like racism and extremism.
Its outcome could have a long-lasting impact on the military’s first priority: ensuring that it is ready for war in an era of uncertain arms control.
Also at stake are relations with allies and partners, weakened in some cases by former US president Donald Trump’s “America first” approach to diplomacy.
Austin’s review is closely related to a pending decision by the Biden administration on whether to fulfill the Trump administration’s promise to fully withdraw from Afghanistan by May — and it is advancing separately from big-dollar questions about modernizing the US’ strategic nuclear force.
Like the Trump administration, Biden’s national security team views China, not militant extremists like al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, as the greatest long-term security challenge.
Unlike his predecessor, Biden sees great value in US commitments to European nations in the NATO alliance.
That could lead to significant shifts in the US military “footprint” in the Middle East, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, although such changes have been tried before with limited success.
The Trump administration, for example, in 2019 felt compelled to send thousands of extra air and naval forces to the Persian Gulf in an effort to deter what it called threats to regional stability. Biden has over the past few days seen reminders of this problem with violence in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It might also mean a Biden embrace of recent efforts by military commanders to seek innovative ways to deploy forces, untethered from permanent bases that carry political, financial and security costs.
A recent example is a US aircraft carrier visit to the Vietnamese port of Da Nang in March last year. US commanders see value in deploying forces in smaller groups on less predictable cycles to keep China off balance.
Hints of change were surfacing before Biden took office.
In December last year, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley spoke of his own view that technological and geopolitical change argue for rethinking old ways of organizing and positioning forces.
The very survival of US forces would depend on adapting to the rise of China, the spread of technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics, and the emergence of unconventional threats like pandemics and climate change, Milley said.
“Smaller will be better in the future. A small force that is nearly invisible and undetectable, that’s in a constant state of movement and is widely distributed — that would be a force that is survivable,” he told a conference in Washington. “You’re not going to accomplish any objective if you’re dead.”
Austin made a similar, narrower point last month about the positioning of US forces in Asia and the Pacific.
“There’s no question 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,” Austin wrote in response to US Senate questions posed in advance of his confirmation hearing.
Austin also noted his concern about competing with Russia in the arctic.
“This is fast becoming a region of geopolitical competition, and I have serious concerns about the Russian military buildup and aggressive behavior in the Arctic — and around the world,” he wrote. “Likewise, I am deeply concerned about Chinese intentions in the region.”
That does not argue for abandoning the US military’s large hubs overseas, but it suggests more emphasis on deployments of smaller groups of troops on shorter rotations to nontraditional destinations.
This shift is already underway.
The US Army, for example, is developing what it calls an arctic-capable brigade of soldiers as part of an increased focus on the north polar region. That area is seen as a potential flashpoint as big powers compete for natural resources that are more accessible as the sea ice recedes.
Similarly, the US Air Force is sending B-1 long-range bombers to Norway, a NATO ally and neighbor of Russia, for the first time.
China considers itself an arctic nation, but the main US concern with Beijing is its growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region. In Washington’s view, China aims to build a military strength to deter or block any US effort to intervene in Taiwan.
A report by the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based nonprofit organization, earlier this month called Taiwan the most likely spark for a US-China war, a prospect with dire human consequences that it said “should preoccupy the Biden team.”
“Millions of Americans could die in the first war in human history between two nuclear weapons states,” the report said.
Washington also cites concern about China’s efforts to modernize and potentially expand its nuclear arsenal while it declines to participate in any international nuclear arms control negotiations.
The sharpened focus on China began during the administration of former US president Barack Obama. The Trump administration went further by formally declaring that China and Russia, not global terrorism, were the top threats to US national security.
Some now question whether this shift has gone too far.
Christopher Miller, who served as US acting secretary of defense for the final two months of Trump’s presidency, said in an interview that he agrees that China is the key national security threat. However, he said that US commanders elsewhere in the world told him that the focus on China was costing them needed resources.
“So I felt it was time to relook this and make sure that we haven’t created any unintended consequences,” Miller said.
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