This week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates poignantly described the emerging high-end asymmetrical challenge that China’s military poses to the United States:

Their investments in cyber and anti-satellite warfare, anti-air and anti-ship weaponry, and ballistic missiles could threaten America’s primary way to project power and help allies in the Pacific – in particular our forward air bases and carrier strike groups. This would degrade the effectiveness of short-range fighters and put more of a premium on being able to strike from over the horizon – whatever form that capability might take.

The Secretary is correct in his observation and has taken the step of tasking a High-End Asymmetrical Threat team to investigate the implications of this challenge as part of the Pentagon’s QDR strategy review process.

Unfortunately, Secretary Gates followed up by returning to a common theme that has characterizing much of his thinking over the past 18 months: the idea that military requirements should be “defined by what is needed to defeat potential adversaries in plausible scenarios.” This is another way of saying the military should be concerned with the here and the now, instead of over-the-horizon developments of 10 and 20 years from now that the QDR is tasked with planning for. Thus, delays and cuts to the F-22, next-generation cruiser, long-range bombers, and the future size of the carrier fleet are all more easily justifiable.

The consequences of this approach were raised this week by outgoing Commander of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), Admiral Timothy Keating. Admiral Keating, who has been Commander of PACOM for more than two years now, expressed both his “worry” and “concern” that “decisions will be made that reduce force levels to an extent that we will not be able to execute the missions that we’ve been given.” He added, “Any significant reduction in force size will require us to revise our training plans, our exercise plans, our theater plan and to take another look at our fundamental strategy.”

Thus, while Secretary Gates deserves credit for articulating China’s expanding asymmetrical capabilities, the potential magnitude of changes the QDR and 2011 defense budget may generate raise serious questions about Washington’s long-term ability to cope with these asymmetric capabilities, or even to sustain its military presence in the region.

Eric Sayers is a graduate student at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University and former Research Assistant for National Security at The Heritage Foundation