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O'Hanlon Reading Summary

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Micheal O’Hanlon, “America’s Pacific Power and Pacific Alliances in the Age of Austerity,” International Journal of Korean Studies, Fall/Winter 2012


O’Hanlon’s article discusses the possible effect that budget cuts to the United States military might have on its policy toward its allies in the Pacific in the current era of rebalance, posing and suggesting answers for the question of how far those budget cuts can go without jeopardizing the security of the region.

O’Hanlon begins the article by discussing a variety of reasons why the issue of whether the US should cut back on military spending might not be as simple as it appears. Although the US is now withdrawing from its two wars abroad, surrounded by the protection of the oceans, and armed with high technology weaponry, an important lesson of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is that one cannot rely on the “shock and awe” of that technology alone to stabilize a region. The number of boots on the ground can make a vital difference, and if one underestimates the number of troops needed going into war, it may result in dire consequences. We may try to say that the US can now avoid being tangled up in complex ground missions for which great numbers of troops are needed, but the matter of fact is that there is no way to predict developments on the world stage so far into the future. Speaking in terms of number of troops, O’Hanlon notes, the current US military is second in size to China, and only slightly larger than those of North Korea, India, and Russia.

Some posit that the US could nudge world events into a favorable direction using a strategy known as “offshore balancing,” in which the US intercedes with limited amounts of its power to shape world events. This, however, is both a vast overestimation of the US’s actual power in the world and a strategy that is likely to suggest to US allies that its commitment to them is not as serious as they had supposed, a suggestion that may tempt them to build up their own nuclear arsenals.

During the 1990s, the number of US troops and their organization were set up to sustain a “two-war capacity,” in other words, the ability to carry on two wars, one beginning soon after the other and with some degree of overlap, at the same time, for a time period of several months to about two years. The logic of maintaining a two-war capacity is that, because it is not possible to predict all adversaries at all times, there is “a strong deterrent logic” to having the ability to stave off other opponents even when already engaged in a war abroad. The Obama administration’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Report indicates an intention to continue to maintain this capacity, especially now that the events of the past decade have demonstrated that the possibility of being embroiled in two long-term wars at once is far from remote.

However, O’Hanlon does feel that it is possible to cut back the size of the military to an extent, and indeed advocates that it be cut back to the levels it was at during the Clinton and early Bush administrations. This would constitute approximately a 15 percent cut in forces, resulting in savings of about $15 to $18 billion annually. In order to do so, he suggests replacing the “two wars” with “one war plus several missions”—a plan for the age of austerity that maintains the capacity of the US to protect itself while carrying on a major war abroad, while assuming that only one such major war will occur and that a ground war against any of the major powers is unlikely. For example, if war were ever to occur between the US and China, the conflict would most likely be over the threat China poses to Taiwan or to neighboring nations in the South China Sea, and therefore the naval capacity of the US would take precedence over that of its ground forces. He also suggests the possibility of concentrating US troop capacity in the National Guard rather than on active duty, with the caveat that it would be extremely difficult to mobilize and train so much of the Guard if war were to take place.

For although there is not a great likelihood of a ground war against major powers, it is no stretch to imagine that the US could easily become embroiled in a foreign war once again. For example, if hyper-militarized North Korea were to escalate its conflict with South Korea, try to sell off its nuclear arms, or attempt some sort of nuclear brinksmanship, the possibility of engaging in war with them cannot be dismissed. The terrain would almost certainly necessitate a land war, with the added complications of the DMZ, North Korea’s ties to China, and the possibility of intense shelling. It is even possible that Pyongyang might attempt a nuclear strike against a remote airbase or troop concentration. An army

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