WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials unveiled their sweeping new strategy for the future of the military fighting force on Thursday, but troops won’t get a good idea what that smaller, more agile fighting force means for them until the annual defense budget is released early next month.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta repeatedly deferred questions about specific equipment cuts, end-strength reductions and overseas base closings until the after president’s annual military budget proposal is made public.
But the report hints at what that budget proposal will look like, and what troops should worry about. Here’s a look at some of the questions military experts and troops will be watching in the weeks to come:
** How far will conventional forces be cut back?
The president and Panetta promised a smaller military but a beefed-up presence in Asia, while maintaining strength in the Middle East.
Even with the end of the war in Iraq and an ongoing drawdown in Afghanistan, for the numbers to add up, U.S. responsibilities have to decrease elsewhere. Dramatic cuts in the number of bases and brigades in peaceful Europe have been discussed for years. According to British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, the Pentagon plans to withdraw two of four brigade combat teams stationed in Europe.
But how far will troop levels fall, and over what time period? The Army last year announced plans to slim down to 520,000 troops, from a current level of almost 570,000. Unnamed government sources speaking to The New York Times recently suggested 490,000 could be the number at the end of 10 years.
Defense and budget analysts believe that even that end strength number may be too high.
“I expect deeper cuts in the size of the Army and Marine Corps than advertised to date,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, a center-left policy research institution. “I don’t think the budget math works if you leave the Army at 490,000.”
James Carafano, a defense policy researcher at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said he thinks the active army “is going to 480,000, if not lower, and the Marine Corps is going to lose at least 25,000 if not more.”
Lawrence Korb, of the Center for American progress, a left-leaning think tank, said the cuts would mainly be accomplished through attrition, reduced recruiting and early retirement.
“The Army is going to from 570,000 down to 520,000 by 2015, and continue on for the rest of the decade,” said Korb, an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan Administration. “I expect it will end up around 480,000 for the Army and around 175,000 for the Marines.”
** Just how much money could the defense budget lose?
Panetta on Thursday reiterated that the military is prepared for fiscal belt-tightening, and already has plans to absorb more than $487 billion in reduced defense spending over the next decade. But he insists that Congress must find a way to prevent another $600 billion-plus in additional cuts set to go into effect beginning in 2013.
Those cuts are part of a larger sequestration mechanism put in place by Congress last summer, in a failed attempt to force a bipartisan committee of lawmakers to find other federal budget trims. Lawmakers from both parties have vowed to replace the defense cuts with other savings, but have a poor track record of actually reaching agreement on those issues.
For now, the Pentagon isn’t signaling that the fiscal 2013 defense budget will even consider those additional spending reductions.
“It’s basically just a giant game of chicken, and nobody on either side wants to do those sequestration cuts ... but everyone wants to use the threat of them as leverage,” Carafano said.
Travis Sharp, a research fellow at the left-leaning Center for a New American Security, said he doesn’t expect the upcoming budget proposal to make any serious mention of the additional cuts.
“If the Pentagon were to publicly prepare for that, it would be an implicit concession that it is manageable,” he said. “They feel like they can still wait, that the political process on this hasn’t played out fully yet.”
And, Sharp said, they may be right. Lawmakers almost always defer to Pentagon planners on issues of strategy, and framing the budget cuts as hurtful to military strategy could force them into a compromise.
But that was also the idea behind the sequester in the first place, that the military cuts would be so unpalatable that it would force lawmakers to find alternatives. That didn’t work in 2011, and Congress has only until the end of 2012 before those cuts become a reality.
** What “Cold War” systems and other weapons programs might get cut?
If the Pentagon and White House have been vague about troop reductions so far, they’ve been similarly opaque in discussions of what weapons programs and systems could be on the chopping block.
At the Pentagon on Thursday, President Barack Obama said, “We’ll continue to get rid of outdated Cold War-era systems so that we can invest in the capabilities that we need for the future.”
But what Cold War systems was he talking about?
Some conservative analysts saw it as shorthand for the U.S. presence in Europe.
“For the most part, the reason why soldiers are still in Europe has less to do with Germany and more to do with the fact that it’s easier to get to the Middle East from Europe than it is from the United States,” said Gary Schmitt, director of advanced strategic studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “The truth is, those bases serve a useful function. They’re not just a remnant of the Cold War.”
Carafano warned that if it meant the Pentagon is determined to cut tanks, that bastion of Cold War planning, it’s a very bad idea.
“Heavy forces are not Cold War systems,” he said. “We used tanks a lot in Iraq, and more and more we see articles saying that heavy ground forces are valuable and necessary.”
Brookings’ O’Hanlon said other troubled, expensive systems could be targeted for savings as well.
“I don’t use the phrase ‘Cold War systems’ but I have to believe the F-35, LCS (the Littoral Combat Ship) and Patriot will be among the programs to undergo big changes,” he said.
** What will happen to pay and benefits?
Panetta told reporters that defense officials “are going to protect the benefits that are provided to our troops and their families.”
But that doesn’t preclude changes to future benefits packages, or even cost-saving changes to current health care benefits and housing stipends.
Thomas Donnelly, director of defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said his conversations with Pentagon planners have left him confident that troops will see some benefits changes.
But he suspects only be minor updates, without significant cost savings or disruptions to military families. Most of the immediate personnel savings will come from end strength cuts.
Sharp said he expects a number of new commissions to investigate updates to military pay, retirement benefits and other servicemember compensation.
“They already know what cuts need to be made,” he said. “What a commission does is offer an opportunity to build support on the need to take action.”
In recent years, Congress has resisted plans to add new Tricare fees for military retirees, despite defense officials’ insistence that health care costs are crippling the services. A recent White House proposal to re-examine military retirement policies was met with similar opposition from lawmakers and veterans groups.
Sharp said he thinks some of the congressional opposition will wane as troops draw down from Afghanistan, and lawmakers start focusing on the benefits packages for the next generation of servicemembers. But, real cost-savings in those areas might take years to achieve.