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Smaller military, narrower capabilities highlight strategy review

WASHINGTON — A smaller American military of the future won’t be designed for conflicts centered on long-term nation-building, but will emphasize special operations and counterterrorism, according to a U.S. defense strategy overview released Thursday.

Underscoring the shift away from wars like those the United States has fought over the past decade, President Barack Obama appeared in the Pentagon press briefing room — a first for a U.S. president, according to the White House — to roll out the strategy, which plans for more than $487 billion in budget cuts in the coming decade but offered few specifics.

The president said the plan, which he stressed “reflects the guidance I personally gave throughout the process,” is an overdue examination of military roles and missions and not simply a reaction to the fiscal constraints facing the country. He acknowledged that lawmakers from both parties are already fighting over whether the upcoming defense budget is too small or too large, but insisted that the new plan brings balance back to the force.

“Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is it will still grow, because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership,” Obama said. “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.”

Areas the strategy document pinpoints for cuts include troop levels, Defense Department pay and benefits growth, and the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The strategy was developed with an eye toward meeting developing security challenges without “hollowing out the force” by focusing only on troop levels, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday.

“The U.S. joint force will be smaller and it will be leaner, but its great strength will be that it will be more agile, more flexible, ready to deploy, innovative and technologically advanced,” he said.

In part because of reduced force structure, the capability to wage wars like Afghanistan and Iraq will not exist.

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“U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged security operations,” the strategy document said.

The United States will not be able to wage two large wars concurrently, but instead could conduct a full-spectrum war in one place while “denying the objectives of — or imposing unacceptable costs on — an opportunistic aggressor in a second place.”

But Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey bristled at the suggestion that the strategy shift would prevent the military from responding to global threats against the country, insisting that “this is not the strategy of a military in decline.” He said U.S. troops will remain prepared to counter aggression from countries like Iran and North Korea, and foreign militaries should not interpret it as a sign of weakness.

Regional priorities will also shift, as both Obama and Panetta have repeatedly said in recent trips abroad.

Atop the agenda is an enhanced focus on the Asia-Pacific region, where China is increasingly pugnacious in asserting its power and an unpredictable North Korean regime continues to threaten its regional neighbors. The military will enhance its ability to counter potential adversaries such as China that might try to cut off access to the region by U.S. forces , part of reason Panetta reportedly has decided not to shrink the U.S. carrier fleet to save money.

The U.S. will maintain its presence in Persian Gulf region and the Middle East, the strategy document said, but would take advantage of the fact that European nations are now “producers of security rather than consumers of it,” presumably drawing down force levels there.

In October, a bipartisan group of senators called for a full review of the costs of U.S. military bases overseas, specifically labeling Cold War-era bases in Europe as obsolete and expensive. They also pointed to the coalition that helped Libyan rebels to victory as proof that the U.S. no longer needs a large-scale overseas footprint to ensure military success.

Obama’s comments Thursday came under fire almost immediately from conservatives on Capitol Hill. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., called the plan a “retreat from the world in the guise of a new strategy” and blasted the president for failing to recognize the numerous international threats facing America.

But White House officials said the strategy was carefully crafted with significant input from service chiefs and combatant commanders, to ensure regional concerns were taken into account.

Although the strategy document puts no numbers on force reductions (and likewise singles out no weapons programs for cuts,) ground forces could take much of the hit. The New York Times on Thursday quoted unnamed government sources saying DOD would cut the Army to 490,000 troops over a decade, a reduction of 30,000 more troops than current plans call for, and nearly 80,000 fewer than the current force.

But reductions must be carried out with an eye toward “reversibility,” the document said, retaining “intellectual capital and rank structure that could be called upon to expand key elements of the force” in a time of future war.

Nicholas Dowling, former National Security Council staff member and head of IDS International, a defense contractor that conducts training for security and stability operations, said he believes shrinking conventional ground forces is a bad idea.

“Defense planning shouldn’t be based on the wars we want to fight, it should be based on the wars we’re going to need to fight,” he said.

Threats across the Middle East and rising terrorism in Africa mean U.S. ground troops might be needed in large numbers, Dowling said.

“There seems to be a belief that we can avoid stability operations or that we can avoid large ground operations again, and I don’t think history demonstrates that’s a reliable thing you can plan against,” he said.

The document acknowledges that the Defense Department must “reduce the cost of doing business” in terms of its manpower and bureaucracy expenses. That will include cuts to military compensation and health care costs, although the report does not specify what those cuts will mean for troops and their families.

But Panetta vowed to protect the “quality” of benefits for troops and their families. Details on specific defense cuts are expected in the president’s federal budget request, due to Congress early next month.

“There is no question that we will have to make some tradeoffs, and that we will be taking on some level of additional but acceptable risk in the budget plan we release next month,” Panetta said. “These were not easy choices.”

Veterans groups have protested proposed dramatic changes to military retirement and health care benefits, even as defense officials have pledged that current servicemembers will not be significantly affected.

Obama has called for a task force to look at the possibility of ending the 20-year retirement system as a both a cost-savings move and retention enhancement, but lawmakers have shown little support for that idea.

The last two years, troops have seen their basic pay increase by less than 2 percent, the lowest pay boosts since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

carrollc@stripes.osd.mil
Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

shanel@stripes.osd.mil
Twitter: @LeoShane

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