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Leaner military, weaker military? Obama must tread tricky line. (VIDEO)

The defense strategy released Thursday faces up to budget realities, but the Obama administration will have to balance the need for cuts against Pentagon warnings about undermining security. 

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In a visit to the Pentagon Thursday to unveil the strategy, Mr. Obama stressed that America “is the greatest force for freedom and security that the world has ever known. As commander in chief,” he added, “I’m going to keep it that way.”

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The aim of the president’s strategy review, which has been taking place over the past few months, has been to decide where to accept risk – in other words, where to take troops, equipment, and research dollars away – and where to move more forces and more money to guard against likely future threats.

This will mean that US forces “will be smaller, and it will be leaner,” said Obama. At the same time, it will “have the capability to fight several conflicts at the same time.” 

Yet some analysts argue that the Pentagon is magnifying some of the threats and is making planned cuts – ranging from $480 billion to as much as $1 trillion over the next decade – hesitantly.

When Secretary Panetta testified on Capitol Hill late last year, “He was screaming that the sky was falling, and if we did anything further, the military would be reduced to a ‘paper tiger,’ " says Joe Newman of the independent Project on Government Oversight.

That, he says, indicates a mindset “that anything they do would be done grudgingly.”

Even in the new security document, there seems to be a hint of understated resistance to cuts, some analysts say.

For example, the strategy document announces: “Given that we cannot predict how the strategic environment will evolve with absolute certainty, we will maintain a broad portfolio of military capabilities. We will resist the temptation to sacrifice readiness in order to retain force structure, and will in fact, rebuild readiness in areas that, by necessity, were deemphasized over the past decade.” 

The word “temptation” could be seen as almost comic in its disingenuousness, some analysts point out, since cuts are no temptation to the Pentagon whatsoever. The pressure among big defense contractors and the lawmakers they support to maintain high defense spending is great, after all.

But the document does point to the need to “reduce the ‘cost of doing business,’ ” as well as the “rate of growth of manpower costs.” It concedes, too, that “US forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale prolonged stability operations.”

For his part, Panetta acknowledged Thursday that the country is at a financial “crisis point,” and the call to cut military spending “comes at a time when America confronts a serious deficit and debt problem which is itself a national security risk.” 

Yet he also issued a warning to Congress: “The capability, readiness, and agility of the force will not be sustained if Congress fails to do its duty and the military is forced to accept far deeper cuts.”

Such rhetoric is worrying, says Mr. Newman: The implication that reduced spending that could “encourage or embolden our enemies to attack us – that is really playing the fear card.”

The nation’s top military officer attempted to strike a balanced tone. The goal of the strategy is to keep the US “immune from coercion,” said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey Thursday. In it, he added, “We do accept some risk, as all strategies must. Because we will be somewhat smaller, these risks will be measured in time and capacity. 

“However, we have to be honest – we could face even greater risks if we did not change our current approach,” he said. “It’s not perfect. There will be people who think it goes too far. Others will say it doesn’t go far enough. That probably makes it about right.”

These assurances echoed those of Obama, who in a bow to the political one-upsmanship inherent in an election season, noted that the forthcoming defense budget “will still be larger than it was towards the end of the Bush administration.” 

He added: “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.”

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