Secretary Panetta on the Pacific and The Threat of the Hollow Force


10/29/2011 In his recent speech in South Korea, the Sec Def made a powerful case for centrality of the Pacific and of coalitions and the danger of a hollow force.  I

n a recent open letter to the Secretary, we provided some ideas of how to avoid the hollow force and to strengthen US capacity in the Pacific.

Dear Mr. Secretary: Your tour of Asia comes at a crucial time.  It is important to re-enforce the perception of American support for the defense of South Korea and Japan and other allies in the region.  This is particularly important in a period where some are suggesting reckless defense cuts and strategic freefall.  One aspect of that freefall is a Congress that seems hell bent on rolling out tactical aircraft replacements over 100 years rather than 10.  This sends the wrong signal and re-enforces the reality of weakening of defense. This is creating new strategic realities in the Pacific region which will have real and negative economic and strategic consequences for the United States.


By building 3 squadrons of F-35As now and deploying them to South Korea, defense reform can be accelerated and a more effective integrated force fielded.  The US Army would begin to understand that the F-35A is a core Army weapons system.  The stove piping of missile defense from a flying combat system such as the F-35A would end.


And the US would get on with honoring its committments to coalition partners who have put their hard money down and honor the commitment of three Administraton’s commitment for a timely build out of the F-35.  This is threatened by the current reality of waffling commitment from the Hill to rolling out the aircraft rapidly enough to make this affordable for our allies. If the cuts and roll down of the F-35 proceeds apace, coalition partners will disappear from the program, and the US will get no second chance.  The strategic impact of continuing to make unilateral decisions in Congress with little or no regard to partners in the program will have a significant impact in further accelerating strategic freefall at a time when leadership is required.


And not building the F-35 in a coalition context means that our overall capabilities go down while our costs go up.  That would only make sense to a cubical commando or one suffering from inside the Beltway machinations.


Your entire career has underscored that you live in the real world, not just inside the Beltway.  Your statements on your trip highlight a level of commitment we have not seen recently to the region.  When your predecessor went to China to work through issues, the PRC flew the J-20 over his head. Sending “the annihilator” over his head, should have been a wake up call for Secretary Gates.


It is time for you to fly the F-35 into South Korea on an urgent basis to provide for an ability of the US to significantly re-do the force structure, reduce risks to US servicemen and woman and to ensure that our South Korean allies join in the fifth generation reform.


Japan will get the point and the folks in Bejing who think it is acceptable to insult the United States by putting their 5th generation aircraft in our face during a Sec Def visit might also begin to get the point.


The engagement in Afghanistan is not the strategic disappearance of the United States, but an episode and one from which the US can transition stronger not weaker.  But this will not occur with words alone, but by surging the F-35 and moving those “flying combat systems” into the fight.


It is important to add capabilities to your forceful and powerful words.


My first trip to South Korea as U.S. Secretary of Defense comes at a time when our two nations are making clear to the world that our alliance is strong and thriving. Earlier this month, President Barack Obama welcomed President Lee Myung-bak on a state visit, underscoring South Korea’s emergence as a key global partner. During the visit, I had the opportunity to welcome Lee and Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin to the Pentagon for discussions about our security partnership, which has been a great force for peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.

With this visit to Seoul, I look forward to continuing these discussions and seeking new ways to deepen and adapt our defense cooperation to meet new challenges. 

The U.S.-South Korea alliance remains firmly rooted in a bilateral commitment to provide mutual security. I can vividly recall the moment when, as a boy, I heard the news that the U.S. was fighting on the Korean Peninsula. Americans were gripped with fear of another world war. Thanks to the heroism of U.S. and South Korean forces, however, the North’s invasion was repelled, and six decades later the U.S. remains fully committed to the security of South Korea. Working together, our militaries will continue to deter North Korean aggression, and stand prepared to defeat the North should it ever force war upon us.


It is important to send this signal because North Korea remains a serious threat. Pyongyang has demonstrated its willingness to conduct provocations that target innocent lives. The North continues to defy the international community as it enhances its nuclear weapons and missile capabilities. 

To bolster our combined defense posture, the alliance is developing our combined capabilities to address ballistic missile threats from the North, boosting intelligence and information sharing, and strengthening operational planning to counter North Korean provocations. We are also enhancing the ability of our forces to work together and strengthening our combined military exercise program to maintain readiness. These efforts deter North Korean aggression by demonstrating that we have the will and the means to defend South Korea.


The U.S. military presence in Korea and elsewhere in the region is critical to maintaining deterrence and communicating America’s resolve to defend its allies.

Leon E. Panetta Speaks at Yongsan Town Hall

Credit: American Forces Network Korea