WASHINGTON: Long before an Army two-star general boarded the last United States military aircraft leaving Afghanistan this summer, there was already a growing political consensus about the strategic importance of shifting America’s focus away from the Middle East and towards countering China — part of an overall pivot to the Indo-Pacific.
The question, then, is what this much-ballyhooed pivot will look like practically, and specifically for the US Navy. After two decades of the US military being focused mostly on the desert environments of the Middle East, what will it mean for the sea services — Navy, Marines and even Coast Guard — to turn their attention wholly to places such as the South China Sea?
In this Navy reporter’s opinion, the transformation (or lack thereof) that the sea services make in light of the country shifting its attention away from the Middle East and to the Indo-Pacific will be the biggest news story to watch in 2022.
[This article is one of many in a series in which Breaking Defense reporters look back on the most significant (and entertaining) news stories of 2021 and look forward to what 2022 may hold.]
If you ask Navy or Pentagon officials what this pivot looks like, they will tell you that it has already begun, and that through both words and action, the military is preparing itself for a range of possibilities. The most pressing possibility that comes to mind is what happens if China were to invade Taiwan, a situation that feels more plausible than it has in recent history.
What would that look like for the US military? The Navy occasionally announces freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, which often contain interactions with Chinese military forces attempting to assert their territorial claims. In the build up to a more direct confrontation with China, would these interactions become more frequent or aggressive? Would the Navy’s already high operational tempo for its fleet increase even further with more vessels deployed forward to Japan?
Alternatively, short of a direct confrontation with China, the changes may be more subtle. The Pentagon’s recently published Global Posture Review — or at least, the few unclassified elements the military discussed with the media — did not seem to make any significant force structure changes, despite claiming to be focused on China.
During the confirmation hearing for Adm. Chris Grady to become the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, lawmakers took note. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., asked Grady if he was concerned the review did not mention a single region in which the US military should withdraw resources or decrease its activities. Grady’s answers mostly deferred on Hawley’s questions, praising the GPR’s process rather than examining its results.
This reporter will not make predictions about China’s intentions toward Taiwan or what a realistic, large-scale combat operation in the South China Sea would look like. Smarter individuals in the Pentagon and elsewhere are doing just that, and are far more qualified to do so. But as a reporter, my job is to listen to what is said and then compare it to what happens.
Comparing the Pentagon’s words about the Indo-Pacific and their actions in the region will be my top story for 2022.
Watching the Navy’s words vs its actions in the Indo-Pacific: 2022 Preview Preview – Breaking Defense Breaking Defense is written by Justin Katz for breakingdefense.com
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