Likely cut in US fleet 'sends wrong signals'

US defense minister Chuck Hagel.

WASHINGTON - Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel's comments this week about the possible need to trim the US aircraft carrier fleet due to expected budget cuts are sending the wrong signal to Asia at a time when nerves are frayed, say Washington analysts.

On Tuesday, Mr Hagel let on that the navy might have to cut the USS George Washington Nimitz-class carrier from its force should deep spending cuts, known as sequestration, come into force in 2016.

"If sequestration spending levels remain in place in fiscal year 2016, she would need to be retired before her scheduled nuclear refuelling and overhaul," he said. "That would leave the navy with 10 carrier strike groups. But keeping the George Washington in the fleet would cost US$6 billion (S$7.6 billion)."

While a proposed slashing of troop size to pre-World War II levels has been the announcement making the headlines in the United States, the fact that the Pentagon is considering cutting back on its carriers at a time when China is building up maritime forces would not have gone unnoticed in Asia.

The aircraft carriers are the most visible representative of US maritime power in the Pacific. And for all the focus on diplomacy and bilateral visits in recent months, proposed defence spending cuts are shining a stark light on how important the military plank is to the Obama administration's Asia pivot.

And it isn't just carriers on the chopping block.

Mr Hagel also said it would reduce the number of littoral combat ships it plans to have. Currently, four such ships are on rotation in Singapore.

Defence hawks in the US capital have also questioned the timing of the announced cuts, noting that it comes at a time when the geopolitical situation in Asia and the Middle East is far from stable.

In fact, on the same day that the proposed cuts were announced, Manila protested against a recent incident where China's coast guard used water cannons to drive away Filipino fishing boats near the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.

Dr Michael Green, senior vice-president for Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told The Straits Times that US allies in Asia probably would not be too concerned about how it affects capabilities knowing that the US has a significant lead over the rest of the world. But many will be looking for signals of the White House's intentions, especially given growing doubt in the past year over the US commitment to a rebalance.

And while the critical decisions have been kicked down the road to 2016, Dr Green said: "If we do sequestration, what that says is that the President doesn't have the political power or will or interest in preserving American defence capabilities."

Where capabilities will come into question in the near future, he added, is if a new crisis crops up in the Middle East.

Though the White House has asked the military to plan for a full pullout from Afghanistan by the year end, it is difficult to say with certainty that there would not be another hot spot.

"If we have a simultaneous crisis in Iran or North Korea or the East China Sea at the same time under any scenario, we are going to be less able to handle that than we used to be," Dr Green said.

Dr Michael O'Hanlon, the director of research for the foreign policy programme at Brookings Institution, said his guideline is whether "60 per cent of our future navy exceeds 50 per cent of our old one".

"If not, the rebalance has in fact lost ground. So far we are okay measured against that standard, but if the cuts continue further, we may not be."

jeremyau@sph.com.sg

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.