WASHINGTON (AP) — Top U.S. military officers in the Asia-Pacific said Tuesday that budget cuts could hurt the ability of American forces to respond to a security crisis, including on the Korean peninsula.
Pacific commander Adm. Samuel Locklear said U.S. allies are carefully watching American defense spending, and are starting to question U.S. "staying power" as a guarantor of security.
Locklear and Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, who commands U.S. forces in South Korea, were testifying before the Senate Armed Forces Committee on the defense budget for 2015 that trims spending and aims for a smaller, more modern force rather than a larger one less prepared for combat.
Some in Congress, however, see that as an approach that weakens U.S. capabilities in a period of growing uncertainty in Europe and Asia. Senators in particular voiced concern about the double-digit annual growth in China's defense spending and development of more and better warships and submarines, and the threat posed by a nuclear North Korea.
In prepared testimony, Locklear said budget uncertainties "ultimately reduce our readiness, our ability to respond to crisis and contingency as well as degrade our ability to reliably interact with our allies and partners in the region."
Scaparotti said U.S. forces in Korea are "fully resourced" but he voiced concern about the readiness of "follow-on" forces that would be needed if a security crisis broke out on the divided peninsula. The U.S. retains 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in an armistice rather than a formal peace treaty.
Scaparotti said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is less predictable than his predecessor and so poses a greater threat.
He said a recent spate of tests of Scud missiles from a new, rapid-fire multiple rocket launcher were intended to demonstrate North Korea's capabilities to the U.S. and South Korea as they hold annual military exercises.
Senators questioned Locklear about China's increasing military capabilities that the Pacific commander said would not challenge America's global military supremacy for decades but were giving the Asian power "the ability to influence the outcome of events around many of our partners and our allies."
Although U.S. defense spending still far exceeds China's, U.S. forces are spread much further afield. Budget pressures have added to doubt about the Obama administration's ability to follow through on its rebalance of forces as it winds down military involvement in the Middle East, and the size of the U.S. Navy as it looks to deploy more ships to the Pacific.
Asked about tensions between U.S. ally Japan and China over disputed islands in the East China Sea, Locklear said the potential for miscalculation "could be high and very dangerous" if the Asian nations don't manage their differences, but he didn't think a confrontation was likely in the near term.
The U.S. has nearly 50,000 troops based in Japan and its treaty obligations mean it could be drawn into any conflict over the Japanese-administered islands that are also claimed by China.