Pentagon Cuts and a Changing U.S. Military

The decline of counterinsurgency, the rise of air and naval, shifting away from Europe, and more changes ahead

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey at the Pentagon / AP

The Obama administration's high-profile roll-out of its new military blueprint for the years ahead was designed to do two very different things: mark a decisive shift away from manpower-heavy counterinsurgencies like Afghanistan and shield the White House from Republican criticism over its plans for significant cuts to the Pentagon budget.

The blueprint personally unveiled by President Obama on Thursday during an unusual visit to the Pentagon has far-reaching implications for the U.S. military, Washington's friends abroad, and the defense industry--and its congressional protectors--here at home.

The document represents the administration's clearest public expression to date of how it believes the U.S. should prepare to respond to major security challenges in an era of shrinking budgets. Military funding will fall by more than $450 billion in the years ahead; if automatic sequestration cuts take effect, it will lose roughly $500 billion more.

The new strategy is the product of a widespread view across the Pentagon's military and civilian leadership that ground wars like Afghanistan are a thing of the past while air and naval conflicts with nations like Iran or China represent the most important threats of the future. The document explicitly said the Pentagon will shift military and financial resources away from Europe and toward the Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey made clear that the new thinking would mean potentially significant cuts to the size of the Army and Marine Corps, as well as to expensive weapons programs.

"The U.S. joint force will be smaller and it will be leaner," Panetta said. "The Army and Marine Corps will no longer need to be sized to support the kind of large-scale, long-term stability operations that dominated military priorities ... over the past decade."

Both men have previously indicated that the purchases of costly armaments like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive warplane ever built, and several next-generation types of warships may be slowed or reduced to save money, though they offered no new details on Thursday.

Canceling or curtailing planned weapons buys is always difficult politically because lawmakers typically work to shield armaments built in their states as a way of saving jobs. It is likely to be even harder now because of election-year partisanship and legitimate concerns about the Pentagon taking steps that would almost certainly mean job losses at a time of deep economic weakness throughout the U.S.

Talk of reducing the size of the nation's ground forces is likewise sparking fierce GOP criticism on Capitol Hill and from leading Republican presidential candidates like Mitt Romney, who has said--without specifying how he'd pay for it--that he'd expand the forces instead.

The politically perilous road ahead was clear from Panetta and Dempsey's steadfast refusals to offer any concrete details about how many troops will be cut, what programs may be eliminated, and whether military pensions or benefits will be reduced. Instead, the two men said specifics about those contentious issues won't be made public until the administration releases its budget proposals next month.

Obama used his brief remarks at the Pentagon--the first time a president had ever taken this step--to argue that the coming cuts stem from a careful review of the likeliest threats to the nation and have the full support of the Defense Department's military and civilian leadership. He reinforced the latter point by surrounding himself with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and top civilian officials during his remarks.

Presented by

Yochi J. Dreazen

Yochi Dreazen is writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security and a contributing editor for The Atlantic.

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