US mil­i­tary’s re­sources over­stretched

The New Paper - - VIEWS - PETER APPS

With too many al­lies to re­as­sure and places to de­fend, the US is get­ting in­creas­ingly con­cerned over how much it can man­age

As United States Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump tours Asia, three US nu­cle­ar­pow­ered air­craft car­rier bat­tle groups are ex­er­cis­ing to­gether in the Pa­cific.

It is an awe­some dis­play of US mil­i­tary power and reach, a re­minder of Wash­ing­ton’s un­par­al­leled abil­ity to project global force. At the same time, how­ever, it is also a sign of how stretched those forces have be­come.

Get­ting three car­ri­ers to the Pa­cific has been an in­trin­sic part of Wash­ing­ton’s strat­egy to in­tim­i­date North Korea. But to do so re­quired pulling forces from a host of other po­ten­tial con­flict ar­eas.

The ever-in­creas­ing de­mand for mil­i­tary re­sources in a grow­ing num­ber of places is caus­ing in­creased con­cern in the US mil­i­tary.

In June, a US Army War Col­lege re­port de­scribed the mil­i­tary’s clout as “fray­ing” and bluntly con­cluded that the era of US global mil­i­tary pri­macy that fol­lowed the fall of the Ber­lin Wall was over.

US’ armed forces have a va­ri­ety of strate­gies to tackle that de­cline but the truth is that com­ing wars will look very dif­fer­ent from the sort of de­ploy­ments taken for granted in the re­cent past.

The change from a decade ago could scarcely be starker. In the af­ter­math of 9/11, US’ con­ven­tional mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­ity was fo­cused on a hand­ful of lo­ca­tions, pri­mar­ily Iraq and Afghanistan.

The re­sources ploughed into them were stu­pen­dous — US$5.6 tril­lion (S$7.6 tril­lion) so far, aca­demics at Brown Univer­sity es­ti­mated this month.

The re­searchers es­ti­mated that some 2.7 mil­lion Amer­i­can ser­vice per­son­nel passed through those two coun­tries in that time, more than half of them de­ploy­ing more than once.

Of­fi­cially, the hope was al­ways that one last surge of troops would win the day and al­low a larger with­drawal.

That did not hap­pen, and US mil­i­tary plan­ners now as­sume there will be a sub­stan­tial pres­ence in Iraq, Afghanistan and sev­eral other coun­tries for years, if not decades, to come.

Since the mid­dle of the Obama ad- min­is­tra­tion, the Pen­tagon has qui­etly and com­pre­hen­sively changed its ap­proach to those wars, aim­ing for a much more sus­tain­able “ad­vise and as­sist” model work­ing through lo­cal forces.

Speak­ing last month, the US Army Chief of Staff, Gen­eral Mark Mil­ley, made it clear he ex­pected such mis­sions to grow sub­stan­tially in years to come. The suc­cess of the US-led coali­tion against the Is­lamic State in Iraq and Syria shows such tac­tics can work.

But there have also been sub­stan­tial fail­ures and wastage, not least in Afghanistan, where lo­cal se­cu­rity forces con­tinue to strug­gle de­spite ab­sorb­ing US$70 bil­lion of US fund­ing since 2001.

Much of the bur­den of US op­er­a­tions in the last 15 years has fallen on a hand­ful of special op­er­a­tions units, whose bud­gets, per­son­nel num­bers and de­ploy­ments have all risen dra­mat­i­cally. They are now dan­ger­ously over­stretched.

With much of the fight­ing left to lo­cal forces, US ca­su­al­ties are lower. But as the deaths of four Green Berets in Niger last month showed, putting troops far for­ward with less backup means that when things go wrong, they go bad fast.

An­other awk­ward truth: In the last year, US per­son­nel have been more likely to die in ac­ci­dents than ac­tion, the re­sult of a se­ries of in­ci­dents in­clud­ing the high-pro­file col­li­sions of de­stroy­ers USS Fitzger­ald and John S. McCain.

That toll sug­gests that even the parts of the US mil­i­tary not fight­ing wars are per­haps dan­ger­ously over­stretched.

That has been par­tic­u­larly true in Asia, where both de­stroy­ers were based. Ten­sions with China and North Korea have kept those units on high alert. In Europe too, height­ened ten­sions with Rus­sia have re­sulted in a scale of US mil­i­tary ac­tiv­ity un­seen since the Cold War.

US troops, planes, ships and sub­marines are now on al­most con­tin­u­ous ex­er­cises to re­as­sure al­lies and track Rus­sia’s in­creas­ingly ac­tive forces.

The Pen­tagon bud­get — US$825 bil­lion this fis­cal year — is ris­ing, and con­tin­ues to dwarf that of any other na­tion.

But it is also spread much more widely. China and Rus­sia — spend­ing US$146 bil­lion and US$70 bil­lion re­spec­tively — lack US’ global reach but are more ag­gres­sively fo­cused on their own im­me­di­ate neigh­bor­hoods.

Both have ag­gres­sively ploughed re­sources into tech­niques such as cy­ber war­fare that US tac­ti­cians worry might give them the edge in any lo­cal war.

Wash­ing­ton’s mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties still dwarf any­one else’s, but it now faces a very real dan­ger that its foes may be able to bleed it to death with­out ever con­fronting it in bat­tle.

The writer is Reuters’ global af­fairs colum­nist.

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