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The U.S. Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific Region: A Metaphor for Understanding the Rebalance-Pivot

Part 4

As Yogi Berra famously stated, “it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” In an attempt to sort out the often-conflicting statements and actions and determine whether the United States rebalance to the Asia-Pacific or pivot to the Pacific is real and live, or just a “strategy du jour” that will pass – just as audio cassette tapes have passed into the technological dustbin – we need a metaphor.

By using an airplane metaphor, we believe we can – at least partially – lift the “fog of war” on this issue. The forces working on an airplane – thrust, lift, drag and weight – can provide a convenient representation in examining the U.S. pivot to the Pacific. Examining each of these forces, in turn, can help us determine the odds of the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region remaining “real.”

 

Why Not an Airplane Metaphor?

Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window.

   – Peter Drucker

As this quote suggests, there are manifest perils in attempting to predict the future – especially when the issue is one as complex as the U.S. rebalance to Asia or pivot to the Pacific. However, using our aircraft metaphor, we can use the forces represented by thrust, lift, drag and weight as a prism to examine whether this rebalance to Asia or pivot to the Pacific has traction and will continue. Figure 1 presents these forces graphically and they are described below – in their official NASA explanation. And to complete the metaphor, added on to that NASA definition is how that description relates to the rebalance to Asia or pivot to the Pacific.

Figure 1: Four Forces

Figure 1: Four forces affecting an aircraft’s flight.

Thrust: Airplanes use a propulsion system to generate thrust. The direction of the thrust depends on how the engines are attached to the aircraft. Thrust acts along the body centerline. The magnitude of the thrust depends on many factors associated with the propulsion system, including the type of engine, the number of engines, and the throttle setting. In our metaphor, thrust is the force external to the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) impelling the U.S. rebalance to Asia, and directly opposes drag.  It is the set of national and international factors that are driving the mandate for the U.S. DoD to pivot to the Pacific. It can be seen as the energy fueling the “plane.”

Lift: To overcome the weight of the aircraft which tends to keep it on the ground, airplanes generate an opposing force called lift. Lift is generated by the motion of the airplane through the air and is an aerodynamic force. Lift is directed perpendicular to the flight direction. The magnitude of the lift depends on several factors, including the shape, size, and velocity of the aircraft. As with weight, each part of the aircraft contributes to the aircraft lift force. Most of the lift is generated by the wings.  In our metaphor, thrust is the force internal to the U.S. DoD and directly opposes weight. It is the set of actions being taken to operationalize the pivot to the Pacific.

Drag: As the airplane moves through the air, there is another aerodynamic force present. The air resists the motion of the aircraft, and the resistance force is called drag. Drag is directed along and opposed to the flight direction. Like lift, there are many factors that affect the magnitude of the drag force, including the shape of the aircraft, the stickiness of the air, and the velocity of the aircraft. This force is external to the U.S. DoD and directly opposes thrust. In our metaphor, drag is the set of national and international factors that are competing with the DoD’s focus on the Pacific, and which may hinder or slow the pivot.

Rebalance to Asia-Pacific

Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, answers questions following his opening remarks at the Combined Force Maritime Component Commander (CFMCC) Flag Course hosted by U.S. Pacific Fleet and the Navy War College, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Feb. 6, 2014. The purpose of the flag level (CFMCC) course is to develop a network of leaders, focused on the operational level, in support of cooperation in the theater, oriented toward maritime security and it serves as a forum to develop and deepen relationships. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class David Kolmel

Weight: Weight is a force that is always directed toward the center of the earth. The magnitude of the weight depends on the mass of all the airplane parts, plus the amount of fuel, plus any payload on board (people, baggage, freight, etc.). The weight is distributed throughout the airplane. But we can often think of it as collected and acting through a single point called the center of gravity.  In our metaphor, weight is internal to the U.S. DoD and directly opposes lift. It is the set of pressures or factors intrinsic to the U.S. military force that might limit or inhibit the rebalance, including the inertia of current force structure and budgetary decisions being made now that will have repercussions for decades to come.

 

How Can We Use This Metaphor?

Europe is a landscape; the Indo-Pacific Region is a seascape.  The 21st century represents a decided shift from Mackinder to Mahan.

Robert Kaplan, “Center Stage for the 21st Century,” Foreign Affairs March/April 2009

This analysis is more than an academic exercise. Governments of the Asia-Pacific region have a vital interest in knowing how “real” the United States rebalance to the Asia-Pacific or pivot to the Pacific is. Regional militaries are acutely invested in understanding what the U.S. military force posture in the region will be in the future. Defense industry leaders in the region need to know whether the platforms, systems, sensors and weapons they produce for their respective militaries – especially for those nations allied with the U.S. – will be working beside, or without, U.S. military forces. While the jury is still out on these questions, the prism is available now. Knowledgeable observers will watch the thrust, lift, drag and weight vectors and draw their own informed conclusions.

Drawing these conclusions may challenge the accepted logic or belief systems many bring to the table today. As we noted in an earlier Defense Media Network post on Global Trends 2030, as John Maynard Keynes said in 1937, “The idea of the future being different from the present is so repugnant to our conventional modes of thought and behavior that we, most of us, offer a great resistance to acting on it in practice.” Therefore, much like someone reading a novel, it may be important to “suspend disbelief” for at least a moment. However, the result will be a far-more-nuanced understanding of the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific or pivot to the Pacific.

George Washington Strike Group

The George Washington Strike Group and Republic of Korea navy ships participate in tactical maneuver training in waters near the Korean Peninsula, Oct. 13, 2013. Nations allied with the U.S., such as South Korea, are in the midst of trying to determine if the the platforms, systems, sensors and weapons they procure will be used with or without U.S. forces. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ricardo R. Guzman

As Robert Kaplan explains in his best-selling book, Monsoon, the nexus of world power is shifting to the Asia-Pacific region and Indo-Pacific Ocean. “The Greater Indian Ocean,” he writes, “stretching eastward from the Horn of Africa past the Arabian Peninsula, the Iranian plateau, and the Indian Subcontinent, all the way to the Indonesian archipelago and beyond, may comprise a map as iconic to the new century as Europe was to the last one.” Regardless of where their previous focus might have been – Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, the Americas, Africa, or elsewhere – Americans would be well-served to carefully watch these shifting sands in the Asia-Pacific.

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Captain George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator. He began his writing career in 1978...