By Andrew Burt
Posted on www.InsideDefense.com
February 23, 2011
(Copyright InsideDefense.com. Reprinted with permission. www.InsideDefense.com)
The head of the U.S. 7th fleet revealed plans this week for an increased naval presence in the Asia-Pacific region, divulging details about the deployment of Ohio-class guided missile submarines, the doubling of the Navy’s mine countermeasures ships in the area and added submarine maintenance facilities in Guam and Diego Garcia, as well as the use of civilian shipyards in Vietnam for maintenance on Navy ships.
In a Feb. 21 speech to the Asia Society in Hong Kong, a copy of which was obtained by InsideDefense.com, Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk sought to assure U.S. allies that the U.S. naval presence in the region is not waning.
“It is often asserted — quite falsely — that U.S. presence in this region is shrinking,” he said. “On the contrary, our growth in capabilities and maritime partnerships reflects a clear focus.” The U.S. Navy, he added, “is here to stay.”
In October, Inside the Navy reported that a Pentagon study meant to determine the global distribution of U.S. forces worldwide, dubbed the Global Posture Review, called for the forward deployment of Navy ships in the Asia-Pacific region as a way to increase U.S. presence. The Review was commissioned to allow U.S. officials to study how to avoid the costs of traditional, large-scale U.S. bases like those in Japan and South Korea.
Since that time, sources have continued to stress that the United States is following through on those ideas, slowly developing logistical arrangements — for needs including maintenance or supply storage for the added ships — as well as increasing joint activities with host countries at all levels.
Van Buskirk’s announcement that U.S. ships had undergone maintenance in Vietnam is perhaps the clearest sign yet that the United States is carrying through with these plans.
“We also conducted our first navy-to-navy training engagement with Vietnam since the Vietnam War,” he said. “And we utilized civilian shipyards in Vietnam on two occasions to conduct voyage repair maintenance on our ships.”
Jan van Tol, a naval expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, called the maintenance visits an indicator of plans to increase U.S. presence in the region.
“It’s in keeping with greater presence in the Southeast Asian area,” he said.
Van Buskirk added that U.S. actions in the region should not be viewed as a response to the threat of China’s modernizing military. “We don’t consider China to be a direct threat,” he said. “The U.S. has a broad, deep and complex relationship with China, and much of that relationship is very positive. Indeed, to look at China through the lens of an adversary would be counterproductive.”
All the same, many of the actions the United States is taking seem to be direct responses to the capabilities the Chinese military is building — capabilities like the anti-ship ballistic missile, among many other examples, which in turn seem specifically aimed at denying U.S. forces access to the region.
The National Military Strategy, released earlier this month by the office of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, directly addresses this topic, noting that “we remain concerned about the extent and strategic intent of China’s military modernization, and its assertiveness.”
The strategy goes on to add that the U.S. “will be prepared to demonstrate the will and commit the resources needed to oppose any nation’s actions that jeopardize access to and use of the global commons.”
Van Buskirk’s announcement that the United States has added submarines and new submarine maintenance facilities to the theater could be one such response.
“The Navy is showing that it understands that the access denial issue is a real issue,” said Seth Cropsey, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Navy, who noted that submarines’ reliance on stealth makes them very difficult to deter.
Adding submarines “shows an intelligent way of addressing a problem that the Navy understands is a real one,” he said.
The area covered by the U.S. 7th Fleet spans some 48 million miles of the Pacific and Indian oceans, encompassing more than half of the global population, according to Navy figures. The 7th Fleet is comprised of roughly 70 ships and 40,000 sailors and Marines.