by Rowan Scarborough and Sean Lengell
President Obama went to the Pentagon on Thursday to announce a military strategy that will usher in the largest defense cuts since the Cold War’s end and reduce the active force’s ability to carry out large land wars.
The strategy envisions different ways to deal with aggressors that rely more on special operations and counterterrorism, air and sea power, and building up and training foreign militaries.
If a lengthy, large ground operation is needed as well as an occupation, reserves would be mobilized, officials said.
“As we look beyond the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the end of long-term nation-building with large military footprints, we’ll be able to ensure our security with smaller conventional ground forces,” Mr. Obama said, noting that his briefing at the Pentagon was a first for a president.
In trumpeting the blueprint, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership,” Mr. Obama said: “Our military will be leaner, but the world must know the United States is going to maintain our military superiority with armed forces that are agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats.”
The strategy, coupled with the fiscal 2013 budget coming next month, will shrink Army and Marine Corps ground forces, delay big-weapon production, and shift the U.S. global focus from Europe to the Middle East and Asia.
The reductions stem directly from a bipartisan budget law the Pentagon says will slash $487 billion in the next 10 years.
Not addressed was the next drama: The military faces another $500 billion in automatic cuts unless Congress reaches a deal this year to head off a process that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has warned will produce a “hollow” force.
“The U.S. joint force will be smaller, and it will be leaner,” Mr. Panetta said Thursday, justifying the cuts by citing the federal deficit crisis, the end of the Iraq War and the winding down of the Afghanistan conflict.
At their peaks, the wars together required 270,000 American troops.
In a warning to potential enemies, the nation’s highest-ranking military officer pledged that the United States will be able to confront more than one foe.
“We can and will always be able to do more than one thing at a time,” said ArmyGen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “More importantly, wherever we are confronted and in whatever sequence, we will win. This is not a strategy for a military in decline.”
Mr. Panetta and Gen. Dempsey skirted specific questions about whether the military of the future will be able to fight two big wars at once, such as Iraq, from which troops exited last month, and Afghanistan, where forces are due to leave in 2014.
Critics say the strategy sends the wrong message to a more belligerent Iran, which in recent weeks threatened to shut down the strait and block a U.S. aircraft carrier from re-entering the Gulf.
Mr. Panetta talked of a force different from one focused on large-scale land wars. He used phrases such a “smaller footprint,” “innovative approach,” “military exercises” and “greater flexibility” to describe how the U.S. will maintain global reach.
“Make no mistake, we will have the capability to confront and defeat more than one adversary at a time,” he said.
Gen. Dempsey called the two-big-war requirement “a bit of an anchor” in trying to forge a force for 21st-century missions that the new strategy envisions as counterterrorism, cyberwarfare and shows of force in the Pacific, where China is emerging as a military power.
The defense chief did not release budget details. But officials have said the active-duty Army, now at 562,400 soldiers, will lose some of its core fighting units, the Brigade Combat Team and as many as 80,000 warriors. The Marine Corps, now at 203,000, may shed 30,000 troops.
The Pentagon’s 16-page strategy guidance lists 10 “primary missions.” What is significant is that fighting two wars at once has been replaced by the less-manpower-, less-hardware-intensive roles of counterterrorism and irregular warfare as the No. 1 priority.
The second listed priority, which replaces the two-war capability, is a complicated list of scenarios. The principal one: Fight a limited land war to defeat an aggressor, and mobilize more forces if needed for a protracted campaign. At the same time, deter a potential aggressor in another part of the world.
“Even when U.S. forces are committed to a large-scale operation in one region, they will be capable of denying the objectives of — or imposing unacceptable costs on — an opportunistic aggressor in a second region,” the strategy says.
The George W. Bush administration, like its predecessors, structured the force for two prolonged wars, envisioning that the military one day might have to defeat a North Korean invasion of the South while countering Iranian aggression against other Persian Gulf states.
Hawkish Republicans quickly criticized the new approach.
“The U.S. still faces the threat of global terrorism,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, who fought in Iran and Afghanistan as a Marine officer. “China continues its rapid militarization. The leadership change in North Korea is creating uncertainty. And Iran showed again this week — after the incident with a U.S. aircraft carrier — that it has no plans of changing course.
“We really need to ask ourselves whether this is the right time for such a significant change in U.S. defense strategy, brought on by such severe and disproportionate budget cuts. For me, the answer is a resounding no.”
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, commended the strategy.
“Not only does the strategic review clearly articulate the threats we face, but it also shows that simply spending more money on defense does not necessarily make us safer — spending more wisely and effectively does.
“Clearly, we do not have an endless amount of resources, and that should be taken into consideration, but it should not be the driving force behind our national security strategy. As demonstrated by the strategy laid out today, the administration fully understands this fact.”
Lawrence Korb, an analyst at the Center for American Progress, said: “The strategy adjusts to the realities of the post-Iraq era. It adjusts to the threats of the second decade of the 21st century. We now know the [National] Guard and reserves, they are no longer a strategic reserve, they’ll be an operational reserve you can rotate with the other troops.”
Military analyst James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation said: “This strategy is nothing more than a giant rubber stamp for Obama’s budget cuts. The strategy is basically, ‘There are four legs to the armed forces stool. Let’s saw off two of them, the Army and Marines, and stand on what is left.’”
The Pentagon is slated to spend about $650 billion this year.
Senior Pentagon officials said Thursday that the blueprint represents a significant shift at a pivotal time in U.S. military history.
“This is not a haircut,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter.
The military strategists acknowledge that what they are doing is risky.
“We could get this wrong,” said Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, adding that the five-year budget plan can be changed if necessary.Rowan Scarborough and Sean Lengell
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