Leaner military, weaker military? Obama must tread tricky line.

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. 

Jason Reed/Reuters
President Obama delivers remarks on the Defense Strategic Review at the Pentagon near Washington Thursday.

As the country wrestles with a looming debt crisis as well as what the Pentagon insists are growing security threats post-9/11, President Obama rolled out a new, more "realistic" national defense strategy Thursday. 

In doing so, the administration must walk a tricky line, issuing enough warnings about looming dangers to stave off calls for deeper spending cuts, yet also offering election-year reassurances to voters about the strength of American security. 

The ultimate point of the defense strategic review is to bring the US military in line with the fiscal realities of trillion-dollar deficits. Yet if Congress insists on spending cuts, Pentagon officials have warned for months, then the United States must accept that the armed forces will have to be less ambitious.

Indeed, the strategy released Thursday, called “Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century,” cautions that the US military is at a “strategic turning point” –- one in which “the balance between available resources and our security needs has never been more delicate.” 

Clearly, the Pentagon feels that, in many ways, its job has never been tougher. Not only does the possibility of a conventional war (say, against China) remain, but the Pentagon must also be prepared to continue the fight against terrorism and perhaps even strike Iran. These skill sets are often at odds with one another and enormously costly to maintain – requiring different training, equipment, and priorities. 

The question, then, is how willing the Pentagon will be to play the "fear" card – warning of the potentially catastrophic consequences of budget cuts – even as Congress is convulsed by runaway federal spending.

The strategy announced Thursday takes a large step back from the counterinsurgency operations that America has been conducting in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past decade. Instead, it turns its attention towards the broader Middle East, cyberwarfare, and the Pacific as the epicenter of the new security challenges that the United States will face.

As a result, the size of the Army and Marines will shrink. The force "will be smaller and leaner, but its great strength will be that it is more agile, flexible, ready to deploy, innovative, and technologically advanced," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said. 

At the same time, the US military will focus on projecting its power in the Pacific, and for that, defense officials say, it will need aircraft carriers and stealth fighters – in other words, the star of the Air Force and Navy will be on the rise. 

Secretary Panetta warned that the array of threats is “growing.” He then offered a bracing litany, which included:

  • Extremists who “have the potential to pose catastrophic threats that could directly affect [US] security and prosperity.”
  • An unstable North Korea that is “actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program,” according to the document.
  • China, which could “affect the US economy and our security in a variety of ways,” the document notes.
  • The strategy also ominously points to “opportunistic aggressors” who could take advantage of the reduced US force presence to make a play for power.

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.”

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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