Is America Pivoting to Asia Fast Enough?

Defense Secretary Panetta has put some muscle behind the Obama administration's Pacific ambitions. But will a few more ships really be enough to stare down China?

Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta delivered his first keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, an annual convention that hosts top defense officials from Asia-Pacific nations. Last year, the talk focused on allegations of Chinese aggression against Vietnamese survey vessels near the Spratly Islands, and sparks flew as China's Defense Minister Liang Guanglie spiritedly defended Beijing's conduct. This year, Liang was a no-show, and all eyes were on Panetta as he laid out the U.S. military's plans for putting some muscle behind the Obama administration's much-heralded "pivot" to Asia, unveiled by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Foreign Policy last November.

Panetta used his bully pulpit to reaffirm American resolve in maritime Asia. Despite budgetary headwinds, he said, Washington will "rebalance" forces to keep faith with regional allies like the Philippines. It will remain the self-appointed guardian of the regional commons -- the seas and skies beyond the jurisdiction of any coastal state, where seafaring nations carry on commerce and project military power. Now as for many decades, command of the commons is the substructure on which U.S. strategy is built.

In material terms, though, the slow-motion redeployment of naval forces Panetta foresees will be a rather modest affair -- the buzz among media commentators notwithstanding (one distinguished pundit took note of the change of terminology from "pivot" to "rebalancing" before concluding, "Whatever it is, it's big."). Whether it's enough to keep pace with swiftly changing circumstances in the greater Asia-Pacific region -- in particular China's rise to maritime eminence -- remains to be seen.

The Pentagon's budget draft, the defense secretary declared, marks "the first in what will be a sustained series of investments and strategic decisions to strengthen our military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region." He advised the conference's high-level participants to judge "the full measure of our security presence and our security commitment," not just by the number of hulls in the U.S. Pacific Fleet but by the gee-whiz technology boasted by U.S. ships and warplanes. Each new generation of weaponry is far more potent than the one that came before, he rightly noted. Raw numbers can mislead.

Regional audiences should also measure the United States' resolve by its visibility in the region, he said -- showing up is half the battle. "Over the next few years," vouchsafed Panetta, "we will increase the number and the size of our exercises in the Pacific." The Navy will step up port visits not just in the Pacific but in the Indian Ocean.

But the big news was in the numbers the defense secretary affixed to his remarks. By 2020, he announced, "the Navy will reposture its forces from today's roughly 50/50 percent split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about a 60/40 split between those oceans. That will include six aircraft carriers ... a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, Littoral Combat Ships [LCSs], and submarines." The navy's goal is to field "about 300" battle-force ships total, slightly more than the current 285-ship inventory. Panetta's plan thus equates to reassigning around 30 ships to the U.S. Pacific Fleet over the next eight years.

Will it be enough? Under the 2007 U.S. Maritime Strategy -- a Bush-era directive that the Obama administration has let stand -- the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard vow to stage "credible combat power" in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean for the foreseeable future. By that the strategy's framers mean the capacity to "impose local sea control wherever necessary ... by ourselves if we must." The Navy remains the two-ocean navy it has been since World War II. But the second ocean is now the Indian Ocean -- not the Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea, or other familiar expanses. Washington reserves the right to take command of Asian waters at times and places of its choosing.

Which raises two related questions. One, which tenth of the Navy will move to the Pacific? Nearly 60 percent of the submarine fleet already calls Pacific seaports home, as part of a redeployment that commenced in 2006. One aircraft carrier will transfer to the Pacific Fleet. That's only a few hulls, which implies that surface combatants -- the cruisers, destroyers, and Littoral Combat Ships Panetta catalogued -- will comprise most of the newcomers to the Pacific Fleet. A contingent heavy on cruisers and destroyers -- vessels sporting the Aegis radar/fire-control system and scores of guided missiles -- would pack a far meaner punch than a force with a large proportion of LCSs.

The LCS is a lightly built, lightly armed man-of-war. It performs a single mission at a time -- anything from antisubmarine warfare to clearing sea mines. The Navy hopes to acquire 55 of them, constituting a significant share of a 300-ship Navy. Four of these small ships will forward-deploy to Singapore at any given time, while eight may reportedly be stationed in the Persian Gulf. That's a dozen total. An old Navy rule of thumb holds that the fleet needs three ships to keep one on station. One is at sea. The second is working up for deployment. The third is in a shipyard undergoing overhaul and completely unavailable.

Multiply by three, and this rough-and-ready formula implies that 30-40 LCSs will join the Pacific Fleet over time. How much combat power that represents is debatable. The LCS has important diplomatic uses but is not designed to go in harm's way against enemy battle fleets. "These are not large surface combatants that are going to sail into the South China Sea and challenge the Chinese military; that's not what they're made for," conceded Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations and America's top naval officer, in April.

As Panetta observed in Singapore, counting ships while overlooking the hardware installed in them can be deceptive. Credible combat power vis-à-vis pirates in speedboats -- the kind of mission for which the LCS is ideally suited -- is different from credible combat power against China's People's Liberation Army Navy. In short, a lighter force may be suitable for noncombat missions like counterpiracy or counterproliferation, but not for slugging it out in a sea fight. What mix of vessels the Navy earmarks for the Pacific Fleet will say much about the efficacy of Panetta's redeployment.

The second question: Why concentrate just 60 percent of the Navy in the vastness of the "Indo-Pacific" theater, when -- judging from the Maritime Strategy -- the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard service chiefs consider the Atlantic Ocean a safe expanse? Why not more?

Apart from a nagging piracy problem in the Gulf of Guinea, off the west coast of Africa, it's hard to name a serious threat in the Atlantic Fleet's area of responsibility. Why not reserve most of the lightweight LCS fleet for Atlantic service, along with an amphibious ready group to respond when natural disasters or humanitarian emergencies strike? Such a naval package would match the "permissive," relatively nonthreatening strategic environment there while freeing heavy ships for the increasingly competitive Asian theater.

As Panetta noted, it's standard practice to divide the U.S. Navy into symmetrical fleets. That is, they're roughly equal in numbers and capability. That tradition may have outlived its usefulness. A two-ocean navy need not be composed of identical fleets. And if something truly dire happens in the Atlantic, generating demand for heavy forces, Pacific Fleet units can always "swing" back through the Panama Canal.

The Pentagon, then, can rebalance the Navy by unbalancing it. The Atlantic Fleet need not be a smaller carbon copy of the Pacific Fleet. Tradeoffs and risk management are nothing new. Indeed, such an asymmetric arrangement would be a throwback to the Navy's pre-World War II history, before the nation chose to invest in a stand-alone navy for each coast.

As late as 1914, three masters of American sea power -- ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, former Naval War College President Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt -- debated where to position the unified U.S. battle fleet during World War I. They concluded it should drop anchor in the Pacific. European navies were evacuating those waters to wage war at home. Japan might seize the opportunity to make mischief. A rump force could guard U.S. interests in the Atlantic while the battle fleet plied the Pacific as a deterrent.

Debates like this one were commonplace before the age of the two-ocean Navy. The Navy's past thus may be its future. Will it? Much depends on China's naval ascent. If Beijing exercises restraint, it can soothe misgivings in Washington and Asian capitals. Barring an overbearing Chinese threat that demands a swift response, there's something to be said for the kind of slow, resolute change to the Asian strategic equilibrium Panetta envisions. It avoids unduly alarming friends, bystanders -- and prospective antagonists.

Dramatic change would also require the U.S. naval leadership to make a mental leap. After seven decades, the two-ocean construct is embedded in U.S. Navy strategy, operations, and bureaucratic routine. It's hard to jettison time-honored practices unless forced to do it.

The Navy aside, "Europe first" has a long pedigree in American foreign policy. A determined constituency defends it. In May, Council on Foreign Relations pundit Leslie Gelb celebrated -- perhaps prematurely -- the pivot's demise. Giving the order to allocate forces unevenly between the Atlantic and Pacific fleets -- beyond a 40/60 split -- would be a political decision of enormous moment for any president. It would stoke pushback like Gelb's, magnified a thousandfold. Why bother unless absolutely necessary?

From a political standpoint, it's far easier to adjust U.S. deployment patterns gradually as circumstances warrant. More abrupt -- or more menacing -- change in the Indo-Pacific would clear minds. And that would clear the obstacles to more dramatic action. China should take note.

Alex Wong/Getty Images


Facebook's a Company. Get Over It.

Why is there so much glee over Mark Zuckerberg's IPO woes?

Among the historic aspects of Facebook's mid-May initial public offering (IPO) is the schadenfreude that followed. Yes, there are good criticisms to be made of the IPO, not to mention of Facebook's privacy protections and user experience. But read between the lines of the anti-Facebook rants, and it becomes clear that many are slamming the company for acting in its true nature: as a profit-seeking business.

There was a palpable sense of glee as the media deemed the much-hyped IPO a flop and more still as the stock price proceeded to fall, from $38 per share at the opening bell on May 17 to below $28 two weeks later. Some declared they were leaving Facebook for good, and there's even a Twitter feed, @not_on_Facebook, tracking Facebook defections.

This is not simply a reaction to the much-maligned IPO. At the core of the public backlash is the growing belief that Facebook is profiting by selling out its users. My question is: Why the surprise? We project our own aspirations onto companies like Facebook, wanting them to be about intimate connection, self-expression, and even revolution. Then we feel weirdly betrayed when they act in their commercial interests. But Facebook is a business: It's time to get over it.

Facebook can be a thoroughly personal experience. People entrust it with their relationships and their memories. More importantly, they use it to define themselves. And even though some use Facebook for commercial self-promotion or to sell their wares, many others use it to express their personality, shape their identity, and interact with others. "It creates a conflict, real or perceived," says Alexander Chernev, a professor of marketing at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. "People don't want their self-expression to be used with commercial intent."

Now that Facebook is enormous -- 900 million active users and counting -- people feel like they have to be there. Andrew McLaughlin, vice president of Tumblr, says Facebook has become a kind of "social utility." We've come to view Facebook as if it were a cable, phone, or electricity company, and people "always feel jerked around, underappreciated, and underserviced by utilities," McLaughlin told me over email. In Facebook's case, "they take for granted its amazing features and get grumpy about the company's perceived (and, in my view, unavoidable, at Facebook's scale) indifference to them as individuals." In the end, we've created this monster: Facebook feels unavoidable because so many people have chosen to be there.

The problem is that nobody wants to pay for it. The storage of billions of digital photographs, not to mention the labor of thousands of employees, is not free. Facebook makes much of its revenue by allowing marketers to target users based on information they have shared. This rubs some people the wrong way. But it's unlikely that Facebook would be as big as it is today had it imposed a monthly subscription fee.

When companies try to make money off user-generated content, some users will resent them for it. Many unpaid bloggers for the Huffington Post were angry when the company was sold to AOL for $315 million. Some even sued Huffington Post and AOL for profiting from their free labor. But hadn't they benefited from the free platform and promotion the Huffington Post had provided?

In Facebook's case, adding insult to injury is the fact that CEO Mark Zuckerberg, a man in his 20s, made so much so quickly. "The pace of technological change is so fast, companies go from underdog to schadenfreude in a heartbeat," says Andy Kessler, a writer and investor based in Silicon Valley. People are less resentful of Warren Buffett, Kessler added, in part because he is perceived to have accumulated his wealth over a long period of time.

There is a feeling that by getting rich, Zuckerberg has somehow sold us out. But while Facebook celebrates the larger values of openness and connectivity, Zuckerberg doesn't pretend that Facebook is anything other than a business. He even said that the role of social media in the Egyptian Revolution was "overblown." Zuckerberg may not be the most likable guy, though it's hard to tell how much The Social Network has shaped our impressions of him. In any event, our expectations seem unrealistic. It's a real problem if people feel that Zuckerberg can't be trusted to protect our privacy or data. However, if he just seems greedy, and maybe a bit of a jerk, he wouldn't be the first CEO to have those qualities.

People spend so much time on Facebook (in just one month last year, on average users in the aggregate were there for nearly 10 billion minutes per day) that it has become part of our collective identity. People thus want to think of the company as having a loftier mission. Because if not, what does it say about us? Facebook is a transformative, even revolutionary, technology. It liberated Egyptians from three decades of tyranny! It can't just be a corporation … can it?

Facebook is hardly the only technology company on which we've projected our hopes and dreams. Mike Daisey, his fabricating troubles aside, highlights our complex relationship with Apple in his monologue "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." He points out the inherent tension in the fact that our aesthetically divine iPhones, so much a part of how we see ourselves, were built on the backs of cheap Chinese labor, making Apple very wealthy in the process. Google suffers from a similar problem of having to square its whimsical image and "Don't Be Evil" mantra with its role as one of the most powerful corporations on the planet. (Everyone still loves Twitter, but just wait until they start making real money.)

Nor should we let schadenfreude distract us from the larger story. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Apple are among the most powerful ambassadors of Brand America. Their success reflects well on us as a country -- we make products that hundreds of millions of people around the world love to use -- so why aren't we celebrating it? James Othmer, a global creative director at the communications firm Young & Rubicam, puts it this way: "At a time when American innovation is at an all-time low, supposedly, you have this company whose invention is creating untold wealth, at least for its founders, and it is completely reviled."

Dov Seidman, author of How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything in Business (and in Life) argues that across the board, people are demanding more from corporations. People don't want to feel like they are just "clickthroughs" or "pageviews," Seidman told me. For customers to stick with any company, there needs to be a "deeper glue," such as trust.

In the case of Facebook, where people are providing personal data, the need for trust is even greater. And that's fine. We should hold the company to a high standard. But it shouldn't be punished for acting like a business.