WASHINGTON -- In the last hours of the presidential campaign Monday, the Los Angeles class attack sub USS Jacksonville quietly slipped her moorings at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and headed west under hazy skies, likely carrying a combat loadout of Mark-48 anti-ship torpedoes and land-attack Tomahawk cruise missiles.
For six months, the Jacksonville will prowl the volatile Western Pacific with other U.S. warships -- a vivid reminder that beyond the campaign rhetoric, American military forces daily confront tricky national security challenges that the campaign did little to clarify.
From the violent uprising in Syria to the puzzle of rising superpower China's engagement in both global trade and cyber-war attacks, difficult problems confront President Barack Obama in his second term -- challenges that will require adept skill at managing both immediate crises and long-term problems.
During the long campaign, the Pentagon was "squarely focused on our mission of defending the nation," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a statement Wednesday. He added pointedly, "America's elected leaders, in turn, now have the responsibility to do everything possible to ensure that we succeed in our mission."
Where the Jacksonville is headed in the Western Pacific, for instance, the newly reelected Obama has to manage an increasingly assertive Chinese military elbowing aside territorial claims to chains of islands by Japan and the Philippines, a situation that has already resulted in a series of naval confrontations and is likely to entangle U.S. warships. The White House will also have to manage rising tensions on the Korean peninsula, sparked by a U.S.-backed South Korean plan to extend the range of its ballistic missiles and drones. Longer-term, Obama must figure out how to jump-start a new initiative to rein in North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.
Against China and others, including Iran, U.S. military deployments and training increasingly center on a strategy designed to ensure that American forces can penetrate any heavily defended airspace or territorial waters. This warfighting doctrine, published by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey in January, calls for closer integration of air, land, sea, space and cyberspace forces.
On the other side of the world, 66,000 American troops are holding on in Afghanistan, where the pledge endorsed by both former Republican nominee Romney and Obama to withdraw all U.S. combat troops by the end of 2014 appears to be in trouble. A devastating new report by the International Crisis Group concludes that deep corruption and political squabbling inside the Karzai government signal its unreadiness to hold new presidential elections that would pave the road home for U.S. and allied troops. Prospects for a smooth election, transition of power and the takeover of security by Afghan forces, the report said, "are slim."
Yet no new ideas on how to handle a deteriorating situation and approaching deadline in Afghanistan emerged during the campaign.
Decisions also await on Iran, where severe U.S. sanctions and a growing military presence -- including additional warships, strike fighters and a refurbished warfighting command ship -- have so far largely failed to dent Iran's determination to build a nuclear weapons arsenal.
Nor has the United States articulated a strategy to deal with the increasingly violent Arab Spring, from the civil war raging in Syria to the new political turbulence in Tunisia, where President Moncef Marzouki has extended a state of emergency allowing police to crack down on violent Islamist fundamentalists. In Iraq, violence also is rising, with a car bomb on Tuesday killing 25 and wounding 40 young Iraqis at an army recruiting event at the former U.S. base at Taji, 10 miles north of Baghdad. According to the Iraqi interior ministry, 426 people were killed in sectarian violence in August and another 365 in September.
Also yet to be determined is the future of the U.S.' own nuclear weapons arsenal of about 1,700 aging warheads, deployed on submarine-launched missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range bombers.
A new national security strategy unveiled by the Obama administration last January, which emphasizes growing U.S. military strength in Asia and de-emphasizing deployments of ground forces, supports a gradual tapering off of planned increases in the defense budget. This year the Pentagon is slated to spend $673 billion. If the imminent automatic budget cuts under sequestration come to pass, they would knock back Pentagon spending next year to 2007 levels.
Already in motion is a cut in defense spending of $487 billion over 10 years, which would slow the rate of growth projected previously. The spending plan is in concert with a gradual drawdown of U.S. Army and Marine Corps forces. Large ground forces are seen as less useful in a strategy that emphasizes aircraft carriers and other naval forces, air power and special forces for counter-terrorism operations.