Leon Panetta has begun his tenure as secretary of defense with big challenges to manage conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and looming cuts in defense spending and two clouds on the national security horizon he knows he cannot ignore.
These threatening developments are in regions long considered to be of vital interest to the United States: the Western Pacific and the Persian Gulf. They will be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.
One concerns the US military's loss of its near-monopoly in precision-guided munitions, or 'smart bombs.' China is fielding precision-guided ballistic and cruise missiles in increasing numbers. Their principal purpose appears to be threatening the major US air bases in the Western Pacific, such as the one at Kadena, Japan. China is also equipping its air force and navy with high-speed anti-ship cruise missiles capable of overwhelming the US Navy's carrier defenses, and it is developing a new anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21.
Does China want war with the United States? Almost certainly not. What China does want, apparently, is to shift the military balance in the Western Pacific.
The second concern is Iran, which, like Beijing, is buying into the precision-guided weapons revolution. Its 'poor man's' version of China's arsenal includes long-range ballistic missiles, supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, smart anti-ship mines and fast attack boats to 'swarm' enemy ships. The apparent goal is to turn the Persian Gulf's constricted waters, through which 40% of the world's oil shipping passes, into an Iranian lake.
This challenge is compounded by Iran's efforts to acquire nuclear capabilities, which may encourage it to become more aggressive in its efforts to undermine regional security.
If the United States fails to respond to these challenges, the strategically vital Persian Gulf and major parts of the Western Pacific will become 'no-go' zones - areas where the risks of operating are prohibitively high -for the US military.
The US military is likely to confront these challenges with significantly diminished resources. The Pentagon budget is projected to be cut by $400 billion, and perhaps more, over the next decade as Washington struggles to get its fiscal house in order. Wisely, both Panetta and his predecessor, Robert Gates, have declared that any budget cuts must be informed by a well-crafted strategy, and the Pentagon is working to craft one. A crucial test will be how well it addresses these growing risks.
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