Study Urges Panetta to Send More Marines, Attack Subs to Asia-Pacific

Defense report calls for a 5,000-Marine amphibious group to patrol China's neighborhood.

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The Virginia-class attack submarine
The Virginia-class attack submarine Pre-Commissioning Unit Mississippi conducts alpha trials in the Atlantic Ocean.

A report prepared for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urges the Obama administration to beef up the U.S. military's footprint in the Pacific region by sending additional Marines, attack submarines, missiles systems, and other firepower the area.

The report includes a number of startling conclusions about Washington's ability to shape events in the Asia-Pacific realm, and fight and win a conventional war if hostilities broke out.

A Center for Strategic and International Studies team "found no durable operational framework guiding the specific efforts" to meet President Obama's goal of focusing U.S. foreign and national defense policy on the Asia-Pacific region, CSIS President and CEO John Hamre writes Panetta in a letter accompanying the study dated Friday. "Without that framework, we found many discontinuities." The letter and report were obtained by U.S. News & World Report.

"Ongoing deliberations are shaped more by the legacy of the past--for example arguing about where to relocate particular facilities--than by the security imperatives of the next [30] years," Hamre tells Panetta. "The repositioning of forces in the region has strategic consequences that will shape the trajectory of the next three decades. We need but currently lack an operational framework to match that strategic imperative."

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Since late last year, the Obama administration has been turning the massive U.S. foreign policy and national security machine toward Asia after a decade of intense focus on the Middle East. As part of that, the White House is placing Marines in Australia and two shore-hugging ships in Singapore, and has announced sales of small amounts of things like helicopters to some Asian allies as part of that shift.

Unlike military planning blueprints of the past, the Obama administration's Asia-Pacific strategy is not about simply winning a war. Here's how the CSIS report puts it: "The top priority of U.S. strategy in Asia is not to prepare for a conflict with China; rather, it is to shape the environment so that such a conflict is never necessary and perhaps someday inconceivable."

Due to a number of economic and security factors, CSIS concludes the "combination of stakes and opportunities in the [region] has never been higher." Specifically, the think tank's study notes China's recent clashes with neighbors over its claim to territory in the resource-rich South China Sea mean "the stakes are growing fastest in South and Southeast Asia," adding Washington, to find success, "needs to do more."

The CSIS report, mandated by recent Pentagon policy legislation, makes a case that more American military hardware based in and traversing the vast region will be necessary to meet the lofty goals proffered by Obama administration officials who describe the rationale behind the strategic pivot.

The administration believes much of the history of the 21st century will be written in the Pacific realm, and says shifting combat power, economic power, and diplomatic power to the region is needed to ensure U.S. interests there are protected and advanced. The 800-pound gorilla that goes unmentioned is China, with sources saying the White House's pivot is intended to let the rising global power know America plans to have a say in what goes on in Beijing's backyard.

That is a theme voiced by many hawkish Republican House members, who question whether the White House and Pentagon are putting ample military muscle and monies behind their rhetoric about the strategic pivot. "It's a hollow pivot!" exclaimed one GOP source this week.

"A key principle of forward presence in the Pacific learned over more than a century of engagement is that the tyranny of distance requires forward deployed forces to prevent war and to keep tyranny at a distance," states the 108-page CSIS report. "This is not something that can be done by withdrawing [from the Asia-Pacific area] and then re-introducing forces from [the continental U.S.] in a crisis: By then it will probably be too late."

The think tank tells Panetta he should send one or more additional nuclear-powered attack submarines to the Pacific. The subs could be based in Guam and used to take out Chinese systems designed to prevent the American military from getting too close to Chinese territory--or invading it.

Notably, the yet-unreleased report calls for sending an additional Marine Corps amphibious ready group--composed of up to 5,000 Leathernecks and other personnel--to China's backyard.

"There is currently insufficient [amphibious ready group] coverage for Marines in the Pacific, particularly when compared with assets available for" U.S. Central Command in the Middle East, "and this gap in the rebalancing of forces is striking," CSIS warns the defense secretary.

Deploying a new Marine Corps amphibious group would bring more than additional U.S. troops. It would insert into the volatile Asian waters U.S. amphibious assault ships, a Marine Corps expeditionary unit, F/A-18 multi-mission fighter jets, amphibious vehicles, AV-8B Harrier attack jets, assault helicopters, and other firepower.

That kind of move inevitably would ruffle feathers in Beijing, but CSIS tells Panetta it is a necessary step.

The study also urges Panetta to spread more advanced systems designed to detect and shoot down enemy missiles across the region by basing more in Guam, Japan, and maybe South Korea.

The influential think tank also urges Panetta to beef up existing munitions stockpiles in places like South Korea, while moving F-16 fighters around to create squadrons comprised of a full allotment of 24 warplanes. CSIS also suggests deploying more tanker aircraft, which would allow U.S. forces to refuel more aircraft and keep them in the air longer.

Congressional sources say the study has raised some eyebrows on Capitol Hill, and it surely will do the same inside the Pentagon.

Defense Department press secretary George Little, when asked Thursday about how DOD will use the study in its planning efforts, told reporters "it will certainly be considered as we move forward in our thinking on force posture in the region."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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