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.

Republicans, for their part, argue that the cuts will weaken American national security and stem from an election-year desire to reduce Pentagon funding to shield costly entitlement programs.

The president, anticipating such criticism, said the Pentagon's budget will continue to grow in the years ahead, albeit at a slower pace.

"The defense budget will still be larger than it was toward the end of the Bush administration," Obama said. "And I firmly believe, and I think the American people understand, that we can keep our military strong and our nation secure with a defense budget that continues to be larger than roughly the next 10 countries combined."

Obama's comments didn't stop Republican congressional leaders from attacking the new strategy document almost immediately after it was released.

"This is a lead-from-behind strategy for a left-behind America," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif. "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."

McKeon's office also released a fact sheet accusing Obama of working to end the mission in Afghanistan "to save money," abandoning a half-century of U.S. global force presence, and repeating the "mistakes of the past" by paring down a military that will need to be rebuilt the next time U.S. security is threatened.

Some of the criticism stemmed from press reports that the Pentagon would formally abandon a long-standing belief that it needed to be prepared to fight two large-scale ground wars at the same time.

The notion that the U.S. could--or should--have that ability has long been largely a fiction. Donald Rumsfeld was arguing the so-called "two-war doctrine" was outdated more than a decade ago, and his successor, Robert Gates, regularly said that there was no foreseeable possibility of large-scale ground conflicts in the near future.

More substantively, the military wasn't able to find enough troops to fight even the small-scale wars in Iraq and Afghanistan simultaneously; the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq left commanders in Afghanistan with so few forces that the Taliban insurgency there roared back to life.

The new document says the U.S. will retain the ability of fighting one ground war while "denying and deterring aggression" elsewhere, including using limited amounts of ground forces in the second conflict. Panetta and Dempsey used their comments at the press conference to argue that the Pentagon wasn't abandoning its ability to fight two enemies at the same time.

"The reality is that you could face a land war in Korea and at the same time face threats in the Straits of Hormuz," Panetta said, adding that he believed both conflicts could be prosecuted successfully and simultaneously.

Dempsey echoed those remarks, arguing that "we can and always will be able to do more than one thing at a time."

That sort of confidence doesn't always pan out; earlier predictions of success in Iraq and Afghanistan have often proven to be, at best, premature. The new document represents the Obama administration's best thinking about how to get out ahead of coming challenges rather than being forced to react to them. How the plans will fare on the battlefields of the future, and on the political battlegrounds here at home, remains to be seen.