Pruning the Pentagon

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Barack Obama, center, shakes hand with Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., left, and Sec. of Defense Leon Panetta, right, at a news briefing on the defense strategic guidance at the Pentagon, Thursday, Jan., 5, 2012. Looking on are Sec. of the Army John McHugh, far left, and Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos, far right.

Yesterday, President Barack Obama crossed the Potomac River to hold a press conference at the Pentagon, the first time a president has addressed reporters from the military’s headquarters. Flanked by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey, and other senior military leaders, the president introduced the findings of a nine-month review of U.S. military strategy that will guide how the Pentagon allocates defense dollars as military spending slows following a decade of war.

The review, which calls for a leaner, more agile military and a shift in focus from the wars in the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region, carries great strategic and political import. Any defense analyst worth his or her bullets will tell you that budget decisions should follow strategic priorities, never the other way around. Choices arrived at in the opposite direction are tarred as “math, not strategy.”

The problem is that since the end of the Cold War, U.S. military strategy has tended to be all math, in the sense that missions and priorities just keep getting added without subtracting others. As former Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen put it, the post-9/11 money spigot for defense “hasn’t forced us to prioritize. … It hasn’t forced us to do the analysis. And it hasn’t forced us to limit ourselves and get to a point of deciding, in a very turbulent world, what we’re going to do and what we’re not going to do.” Yesterday’s strategy document was a first attempt to do just that.

Before exploring the specifics of the new strategy, defense “cuts” must be put into context. Despite the protestations of some members of Congress—complaints echoed by all the presidential candidates polling above single digits—the “cuts” are really just reductions in the rate of growth. The Budget Control Act mandates $489 billion less in spending over the next ten years than Pentagon projections anticipated. That’s roughly an 8 percent reduction from projected spending.

If the so-called sequester—automatically triggered cuts agreed to late last year as part of the debt-ceiling deal between Republicans and Democrats in Congress—takes effect, an additional $500 billion may be required, although that scenario is unlikely. Administration officials, Panetta foremost among them, have howled that such cuts would amount to doomsday for U.S. national security, even though they would only bring the Pentagon budget back to where it was in 2007. As Gordon Adams of the Stimson Center has written, a $1 trillion reduction would still be smaller than any of the last three postwar “build downs.”

Right now the White House and Pentagon are planning only for the former scenario. Yesterday’s announcement gave the strategic outlines for how the Pentagon would implement those reductions without jeopardizing national security, while specifics on the numbers and affected programs won’t be released until the official budget drops next month.

So what does the strategy say?

The document flows from this question, posed by President Obama in his speech: “What kind of military will we need after the long wars of the last decade are over?” The answer, according to Panetta, is a force that’s “smaller and leaner, but will be agile, flexible, ready, and technologically advanced.” That means reductions in the size of the Army and Marines, reportedly almost back down to pre-9/11 levels

It also signals that the U.S. is in no hurry to engage in another extended occupation like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, this marks a move away from the counterinsurgency operations of the last decade. Instead, America will build a military poised to respond quickly to events around the world. The operation in Libya and even the raid that killed Osama bin Laden serve as models for this strategy. To be sure, we will retain the capability to project force for long-term operations if our vital interest are at stake, but such operations will be the exception, not the rule.

The strategy does not call for less everywhere. In fact, it explicitly calls for a “pivot” that would increase resources in Asia while still retaining a large presence in the Middle East. That shift would highlight naval and airpower over ground forces. Given the scarcity of resources, changes will likely include a redeployment of about a third of U.S. forces currently stationed in Europe. Broadly, the shift toward Asia shows an understanding that the center of gravity in global politics has shifted toward the Western Pacific. 

Critics of this broader rebalancing will read it as an abandonment of the “two-war strategy,” or the doctrine that the American military needs to be large enough to fight two big regional wars at once. But as Mark Thompson at Time has noted, that strategy has been untenable since World War II and was disproved as recently as the last decade, when deciding to invade Iraq doomed the Afghan War to failure. 

On the weapons-buying front, Obama characterized the approach as getting rid of “outdated Cold War-era systems so that we can invest in the capabilities we need for the future.” The strategy adds that “deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force.” Which part of the nuclear complex would come under the scalpel remains unclear, though. In explaining the strategy, Pentagon officials demurred on the question of whether any leg of the nuclear triad—submarines, land-based missiles and bombers—would come under serious consideration for cuts. Early reports also float delaying the production of the troubled F-35 fighter-jet program.

Opponents of the new strategy will surely call this winnowing of priorities a “hollowing” of the military, a term that originally referred to forces that are numerous but lack training or proper equipment. The term has recently been appropriated as general pushback against any cuts to the military budget and in the process, lost much of its meaning. Countering that charge, the strategy explicitly commits to “resist the temptation to sacrifice readiness in order to maintain force structure.” In other words, the U.S. will maintain a smaller, well-trained, well-equipped force instead of building a bigger but less effective one.

Finally, and probably most important, the strategy recognizes the need to look beyond traditional military solutions in order to manage the complex threats of the future. This includes strengthening diplomacy, development, intelligence, and homeland security—as well as recognizing that American strength flows from our economic prowess. Broadening the scope of what’s considered defense makes sense, both because the world has changed and because conflict prevention and diplomatic solutions are cost-effective.

There’s no doubt this blueprint for military spending reform will upset various interest groups with a stake in maintaining the status quo. But as Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey put it yesterday, America has no choice, as “we could face even greater risks if we didn’t change our approach.”

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