Andrey Sushentsov
This appointment has almost no implications for the US military strategy like all the previous appointments in the last 20 years. Irrespective of who holds the position of the Defence Secretary, the US remains a naval power, whose continental territories will remain immune to opponents at least till 2050.
13 декабря 2014 | 19:55

Pentagon priorities: what to expect from the new US Defence Secretary

The text is originally published in Russian by

Ashton Carter, the US Deputy Secretary of Defence in office, was nominated on 6 December by Barack Obama to head the Pentagon. In case the Senate approves the nominee, the new Secretary of Defence will be an active analyst, who has worked in the Pentagon on different positions with 11 of the previous Secretaries, and is, therefore, well familiar with the American military machine. However, this appointment has almost no implications for the US military strategy like all the previous appointments in the last 20 years. Irrespective of who holds the position of the Defence Secretary, the US remains a naval power, whose continental territories will remain immune to opponents at least till 2050.

This circumstance has shaped the core of the US global strategy throughout their history. Far from significant external threats and with peaceful states as neignbours, enjoying favourable climate and a stable political regime, the US has all the conditions for sustainable economic growth, which has lasted practically uninterrupted since 1880s. Not once during this time has the US been shaken by conflicts similar to the European wars of the 20th century. These greenhouse conditions have made for the leading position of the US today.

Apart from that, the US has made itself a self-sufficient country with export amounting to insignificantly higher than 10% of the GDP, three quarters of which go to Canada and Mexico. The capacity of its domestic market makes the US low dependent on the world political and economic situation.

Thus, the US is the only isolationist, and all it wants from the world is to be left undisturbed.

As time went by, this goal became the highest priority in Washington’s strategy. The only power that could disturb the US was the one with a powerful navy, which is why Washington concentrated on creating its own navy capable of resisting any opponent at the American sea-borders. With the growth of the US capabilities, its navy has been penetrating deep into the Atlantic and the Pacific, anchoring on the far-away Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines.

In order to ensure a free pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans the US initiated building the Panama Canal while actively protecting its monopoly in possessing the Canal from Britain and France. This sole control of the Canal was so important to Washington that it provoked a separatist movement in Panama, which announced its independence from Columbia with support of the US navy in 1903. Later, in 1989, when the latest threat for the passage of American sheep though the Canal occurred, the US carried out an intervention to Panama to change the regime to a more compliant one.

Since that time up until today ensuring its superiority at sea and unlimited access to the key regions has been in the basis of the US global strategy. All the rest of the military goals, including conflicts in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, are considered minor.

Washington takes to active participation in remote regions only in case of high emergency and after all the other possible measures to solve the situation have failed.

Meanwhile, during the last 20 years the US has frequently played a role untypical for them – which is the role of the key driving force in wars far away from its borders, such as in Somalia, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, in Iraq – twice, as well as in Libya and Syria, and others. None of these conflicts put the vital interests of the US under a threat, and the military involvement did not bring any significant profit to Washington. In other words, these wars were not a necessity. And in some cases, like in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s, the US failed to resist the opponents and was made to come up with a new ‘victorious formula’ in order to save the face.

In fact, the US is good at fighting sea wars, while is bad at land wars. What hinders it from gaining advantage on the land is mostly lack of interest in conquering far-away territories. Washington does not seek to retain remote regions for its security does not depend on this. The open ocean is a different case, and the US will assert their dominance in it whatever the cost.

The important difference between sea and land wars is their duration. The former are short, while the latter demand staying power and may last uncertainly long. In contrast, Russia, the world’s leading military power on land, has been forced to defend its territory for centuries and, in the end, has learnt to safely secure its borders. This let Moscow form the biggest state in the world and repulse attacks of opponents in land wars. Moreover, Russia has learnt to wage long-lasting land wars at a low cost and succeed in them.

The wars of the last decade let the US learn their lesson well – it is vital by all means to avoid local conflicts, where there is no clear American interest.

At the same time the US opponents aim to drag it in this kind of conflicts and make the Americans stay bogged down in them for a long period of time.

However, with the US lacking the need to conquer remote places, it can afford not to win decisively, for instance, in Iraq or Afghanistan. Instead, the US are ready to carry out exhausting strikes, which prevents from getting dragged into a war, and at the same time hinders the opponent’s recovery. It is wars at sea that are wars to win at any cost for the US.

For these reasons, Ashton Carter’s nomination for the position of the Defence Secretary will not make a landmark in the US military strategy, although Carter truly is an outstanding figure. A Harvard graduate, a professor and the head of the Belfer Center of the University, he was approved by the Senate as the first Deputy Defence Secretary under Chuck Hagel and Leon Panetta. Arguably, he is one of the most qualified experts in his area, who is expected to assist Barack Obama in ending his presidential term.

Carter managed his duties in the conditions of decreasing the military budget, being among the responsible for its optimization in the last several years. He will not have to study the Afghan, Iraqi or Syrian cases afresh for he was the moving force within the Pentagon in these directions till late 2013. His goal will be a step-by-step exit of the US from these conflicts. The ‘Asian U-Turn’, i.e. the transfer of the American troops from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific, is also familiar to Carter as he took part in formulating this strategy. The possibility of the Chinese navy entering the open ocean is a much bigger concern for Washington than stability of the European borders. All the rest goals of the US are the same: abstaining from the unnecessary conflicts, ensuring control of the sea and newly discovered spaces – the open space, the bottom of the Ocean, the Arctic and the Antarctic zones.

As for the Ukrainian crisis, it will not affect these priorities. The 350 million USD approved by the Congress to provide Ukraine with military equipment are a drop in an ocean of the 600 billion USD budget of the Pentagon. Clearly, Washington is not preparing for a war with Russia, as it would demand a qualitatively different army. At the same time the US tends to exhaust Moscow in local conflicts indirectly – if the latter gives cause.

Nonetheless, unlike China, Russia does not challenge the American monopoly at sea and, therefore, does not make a strategic opponent.

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