Two events in February 2013 -- one an extensive set of allied maneuvers in the Pacific, the other a Washington budget battle -- tugged at both ends of American military readiness.
U.S., Japanese, and Australian air power massed at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam in February 2013 for the 13th edition of Operation Cope North, a "large force employment operation" that gives the Pacific allies a chance to work together in a variety of scenarios, from disaster relief to combat. As the Obama administration refocuses American military attention to the Asia Pacific region, Cope North also sends a message of unity in the American camp.
With Korea continuing to rattle sabers -- and cages -- with its missile and nuclear weapons testing, Cope North is also symbolic proof of U.S. and allied military readiness in case international patience with sanctions runs out. Warfare, of course, always exists at the far right of any nation's foreign policy.
Meanwhile, the Department of Defense argued against budgetary sequestrations that will kick in on March 1 unless Congress and the president strike some sort of deal. Pentagon brass say the sequestration will hurt American military readiness, something Cope North (and similar maneuvers elsewhere) are designed to bolster.
A Note On Terminology
In November 2011, President Barack Obama began what was termed a foreign policy "pivot" toward the Asia Pacific region. That pivot meant focusing more on the Asia Pacific than the Middle East, which had dominated U.S. foreign policy for a decade.
However, the Pentagon and America's allies in the Middle East objected to the word "pivot." They feared the term suggested the U.S. was turning its back on the area. Of course, that was not true. Obama simply wanted to begin paying more attention to the region over which China was gaining more military and economic hegemony.
Nevertheless, the word "pivot" is out. The Pentagon and various military agencies have replaced it with "rebalance." That's a good trade, and certainly more accurate since it doesn't alienate any side of the foreign policy scale.
The rebalance has included alliance reaffirmations with Australia and Japan, and the United States' normalization of relations with Burma (Myanmar). In late 2011, Burma began making significant progress toward sustained democracy. Obama sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to lay the groundwork for normalized relations; in November 2012 both of them visited Burma.
Colonel Peter Milohnic, the U.S. Exercise Director and Commander of the 18th Operations Group at Kadena Air Base in Japan, described Operation Cope North. "President Obama has asked us to rebalance our forces to the Pacific region of operations, so we can ensure we are geographically distributed as well as politically sustainable and operationally resilient," he said. "Cope North gives us an excellent chance to practice our strategy of collaboration at a very personal level with our Pacific allies, so that when something happens and we all need to work together, it isn't the first time we're working together."
Cope North's first week focused on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. The second week involved combat operations, including fighter, refueling, bomber, and tanker operations.
Specter Of Sequestration
Contrasted against the allied readiness operations of Cope North in February 2013 were fears that budget sequestration in Washington would undermine that readiness.
Sequestration is the somewhat vague term for automatic, across-the-board budget cuts in federal agencies on March 1. Sequestration became part of the summer 2011 debt-ceiling deal to appease Republicans.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has criticized sequestration as detrimental, and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter testified against sequestration before the Senate Appropriations Committee on February 14.
Carter said that failing to "de-trigger" sequestration sends a negative message to the rest of the world. "The world is watching us," said Carter. "Our friends and our enemies are watching us, . . . and they need to know that we have the political will to forestall sequestration."
Sequestration would cut an estimated $54 billion from the defense budget, leaving it at about $478 billion for the year, or roughly its budget for 2007.
Republicans claim the Defense Department is playing with numbers in an attempt to skirt the sequestration. At this writing, President Obama was still hoping sequestrations could be avoided.