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Defense remains strong despite cuts, chiefs say

Jan. 5, 2012 - 06:00AM   |  
President Obama speaks Jan. 5 at a news conference at the Pentagon.
President Obama speaks Jan. 5 at a news conference at the Pentagon. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

Top Pentagon officials stressed Thursday that even the shrinking military they envision under President Obama's new defense strategy will be strong enough to take on all comers, a view not shared by some leaders on Capitol Hill.

For decades, fighting and winning two wars at once has been an underlying tenet for Pentagon planners. The strategy announced Thursday foresees a smaller Army and Marine Corps, far less appetite for wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, greater emphasis on special operations forces and intelligence-gathering, and shifting focus to China and the Pacific.

The new strategy was necessitated by the need to cut military spending by at least $480 billion over the next decade and the winding down of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Even the downsized military will be strong enough, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey maintained, to take on all comers.

"We can confront more than one enemy at a time," Panetta said.

Dempsey was more explicit, saying the military could handle a war in Korea and problems with Iran in the Persian Gulf.

"Fundamentally, our strategy has always been about our ability to respond to global contingencies wherever and whenever they happen," Dempsey said. "This does not change. We will always provide a range of options for our nation. We can and will always be able to do more than one thing at a time."

Some in Congress challenged that assertion.

Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., who chairs a committee on military readiness, said the strategy is inappropriately based on a budget cuts rather than the challenges America faces.

"To me this is not a strategy for a superpower," Forbes said in an interview. "This is more a menu for mediocrity."

The previous peak in Udefense spending was an inflation-adjusted $517 billion in 1985. It then fell in real terms the next 15 years but jumped after the Sept. 11 attacks, growing an average 4.4 percent annually. Fifty years ago, defense spending accounted for 47 percent of total federal spending. Today, it accounts for 19 percent, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

The Heritage Foundation states in a report based on figures from the federal government that defense spending is already at a low compared with the past 45 years. It says defense spending is now about 4 percent of GDP, down from a high of 9.5 percent at the height of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s.

Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, echoed those remarks in a statement, saying the strategy does not account for threats America faces.

"This is a lead-from-behind strategy for a left-behind America," McKeon said. "The president has packaged our retreat from the world in the guise of a new strategy to mask his divestment of our military and national defense."

Scaling back from the ability to fight two wars is not as "big a change as it looks," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution. The likelihood of having to fight two large land wars is slim. Even in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States was forced to focus first on Iraq before it was able to build up forces in Afghanistan.

The strategy still allows for fighting one land war and another contingency, which gives the military the flexibility required to respond to an additional threat or extend the length of a conflict if needed, he said.

Obama called the new strategy an attempt to combine the need to cut defense spending with a revised assessment of the threats America will face in coming years.

"Even as our troops continue to fight in Afghanistan, the tide of war is receding," President Obama said at the Pentagon. "Even as our forces prevail in today's missions, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to look ahead to the force we need for the future."

The Pentagon must cut $487 billion from its budget over the next 10 years, a figure that could swell to more than $900 billion if a budget deal is not reached.

The Army and Marine Corps already have been scheduled for downsizing. The Army has about 550,000 soldiers, up about 40,000 since 2006. There are about 200,000 Marines, up from 175,000. The Pentagon is currently planning to cut 27,000 soldiers and 20,000 Marines by 2015 to save about $6 billion in 2015 and 2016.

The strategy change signals a shift away from labor-intensive wars, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. "The attitude is no more Iraqs," said Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Iraq and Afghanistan were large nation-building efforts requiring thousands of troops. A decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has cost nearly $1 trillion and more than 6,200 U.S. lives.

Pentagon leaders did not specify cuts, but Obama's strategy shift will drive decisions about specific reductions, which will be announced in coming weeks.

Analysts say the Pentagon will attempt to pace the personnel reductions so as not to throw large numbers of service members into the labor force or abandon the non-commissioned officers who have borne the burden of fighting the nation's wars for the past decade.

"These are people who held the Army together," Krepinevich said.

The Pentagon also will have to consider cutting military benefits, which will likely trigger a sharp political debate.

With smaller military forces, the armed forces will attempt to spread influence and counter threats with lower cost alternatives, such as partnering or advising foreign militaries.

"Wherever possible, we will develop low-cost and small-footprint approaches to achieving our security objectives, emphasizing rotational deployments, emphasizing exercises military exercises with these nations, and doing other innovative approaches to maintain a presence throughout the rest of the world," Panetta said.

Geographically, the new strategy sees a need to counter China's growing influence in the Pacific by expanding U.S. presence and bolstering alliances with countries in that region.

"We'll be strengthening our presence in the Asia Pacific, and budget reductions will not come at the expense of this critical region," Obama said.

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New U.S. defense strategy:">Read the report (opens PDF file)

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