Pentagon brass previewed a budget Thursday that formally ends the post-9/11 era by cutting ground forces and prioritizing investments in air and naval combat systems.
Defense Department officials provided some details of a 2013 spending plan that shows the U.S. military is preparing for a fight in the vast Asia-Pacific region-and a political battle on Capitol Hill. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta sent a message directly to Asian giant China, saying the $525 billion plan builds a smaller Army capable of "defeating any adversary on land," air and naval forces that would "dominate" any foe, while maintaining a lethal corps of special operations forces. [Senator Puts U.S. Nuclear Arsenal in Doubt.]
The budget "prioritizes" and "protects," as Panetta said, weapon platforms like a new long-range bomber, aerial tankers, naval destroyers and aircraft carriers, submarines and makes only modest production changes to the F-35 fighter program. All are the kinds of combat systems needed in the massive Asia-Pacific region. The spending plan proposes shedding much of the Army's and Marine Corps' personnel growth needed to conduct the stability and counterinsurgency missions into which the Iraq and Afghanistan wars morphed.
The Obama administration is proposing shrinking the Army to 490,000 active-duty soldiers and the Marine Corps to 186,000 Leathernecks in five years. Panetta was quick to note that both levels would be larger than they were on Sept. 11, 2001. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said Pentagon officials swelled the ground services to meet the people-intensive needs of conducting two simultaneous stability and counterinsurgency operations.
"Those demands are now going down," said Dempsey, a former Army chief of staff, saying it is "perfectly reasonable" that the services would shrink.
"The brute force of boots on the ground has given way to the more tailored use of special operators, cyber power, and standoff naval and air forces," Travis Sharp, a Center for a New American Security (CNAS) analyst, said Thursday. Achieving that over time is harder than running a budget drill and fashioning a new strategy. "This is how we want to fight, but will our enemies let us have our way?" Sharp said.
Gordan Adams, who oversaw defense budgeting for the George W. Bush administration, noted the strategic shift in the budget decisions.
"Reducing ground forces is something that needs to happen and always does at the end of wars. U.S. ground forces remain globally superior and are globally deployable, unlike those of any other country," Adams said. "The Navy and the Air Force thrive" in the new budget plan, he noted. The Air Force will take hits, however, with senior DOD officials confirming its Block 30 Global Hawk unmanned spy plane has been terminated, and that strategic and tactical cargo planes will be retired.
Adams also noted the Obama administration, by continuing to ramp up funding for U.S. special operations forces, expects more "rapid, small missions are the more likely use of our military-rather than regime-change, stabilization/occupation/nation-building missions like Iraq and Afghanistan."
But that does not mean Adams quite understands the rationale for doing so: "What is unanswered is where and why all these special forces need to be used; that debate remains to be had." Special operations forces perform numerous secretive raids regularly in Afghanistan, and were the ones who killed Osama bin Laden and rescued two aid workers in Somalia Tuesday.
Panetta made clear the Pentagon is steeling for a fight in the Pacific, but he also previewed what stands to be a year-long fight with Congress over the spending plan and the cuts it contains, issuing some strong words for lawmakers.
He noted lawmakers' inability last year to craft a debt-reduction bill that included government-wide spending cuts brought about the last-minute deal that was the Budget Control Act. That measure mandated the $350 billion in national defense cuts over a decade that are implemented in the 2013 spending plan the Pentagon officials previewed Thursday.
Many in Washington believe this batch of defense cuts will stick because of the American public's insistence on deficit reduction. But another $500 billion in cuts over the same span are possible if Congress fails to approve a package this year with up to $1.5 trillion in federal cuts. Panetta used his stage Thursday to urge lawmakers to be "leaders" and understand the "responsibility" they possess to avoid that second batch of deeper cuts that the secretary said would "hollow out the force."
While Panetta was focused on avoiding the next round of cuts, hawkish congressional Republican leaders expressed outrage over the cuts in the 2013 spending plan.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) noted the $525 billion proposal is $47 billion smaller than the administration projected in its last spending plan for 2013. "Contrary to those who would assert that this budget still represents an increase in defense spending, clearly this budget is a real cut in military spending," McKeon said a statement issued minutes after Panetta and Dempsey left the Pentagon briefing room.
Notably, McKeon's statement was not directed at Panetta or Pentagon officials-but at President Barack Obama.
"The President has abandoned the defense structure that has protected America for two generations," McKeon said. "This move ignores a critical lesson in recent history: that while high technology and elite forces give America an edge, they cannot substitute for overwhelming ground forces when we are faced with unforeseen battlefields."
The veteran House Republican's sharp tone made clear an election-year fight is brewing over the Pentagon budget and Obama's vision for a lighter, smaller, more agile military.
"These cuts reflect President Obama's vision of an America that is weakened, not strengthened, by our men and women in uniform," McKeon said, promising "rigorous oversight" by his panel. "This is a vision at odds with the president's empty praise on Tuesday evening, and one I fundamentally disagree with. To be clear, the impacts of these cuts are far deeper than Congress envisioned in the Budget Control Act because of strategic choices the president has made."