February 14, 2012

Three Political Grenades in Obama's Pentagon Budget Plan

The Pentagon on Monday rolled out a $525 billion spending request for 2013, $5 billion less than projected in its last budget plan. The Obama administration was quick to point out that reduction was necessary to adhere to congressionally mandated defense spending caps.

Republican congressional hawks, meantime, were quick to slam the spending blueprint as one that would build a military that is too small and underfunded to meet future needs.

The budget back-and-forth provided a preview of the role military issues might play during this election year. For instance, Pentagon officials say their budget will maintain the strongest military in the history of mankind; Republican defense-focused lawmakers see, as one put it Monday, "struggling Armed Forces."

Here are three key issues on which Obama administration and Republican hawks clashed Monday. Expect these fights to dominate the election-year defense debate.

1. Troops Cuts. 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. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has noted both levels would be larger than they were on Sept. 11, 2001. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey has said Pentagon officials swelled the ground services to meet the needs of conducting two simultaneous stability and counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama plan would bring down the size of the ground forces with the latter conflict over and the former beginning to wind down. Moreover the DoD's strategic focus is shifting to Asia-Pacific region, where naval and air forces will be more important. Analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute noted "the Pentagon isn't abandoning the Middle East, it's just that the U.S. military presence there is moving offshore."

The budget plan shows declining projected Army budgets from 2013-2017, Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale said Monday, noting during the same span Air Force and Navy budgets will grow. But Republican hawks on Capitol Hill immediately denounced plans to shed 100,000 Soldiers and Marines by 2017. Republican lawmakers believe the last decade proves the two services should be kept at their current sizes, arguing the need to grow both after 9/11 proves their point. On Monday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, a California Republican, took an economic-themed election-year swipe at Obama's top aide over the troop cuts.

"White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew said 'the time for austerity is not today,' " McKeon said in a statement. "They'll have a tough time explaining that to the 100,000 troops who will be forced from service under the President's new budget plan."

2. Defense Cuts & Federal Deficits. The question of how much government is enough, what should be its role in American society, and how much it should spend have been dominant issues in U.S. politics since two divisive moments: the Obama-pushed health care reform law and the rise of the uber-conservative Tea Party. The spending question promises to be a major part of the 2012 presidential and congressional election cycles. A senior Navy official acknowledged Monday that federal deficit reduction was a part of internal Pentagon budget deliberations.

Republicans signalled Monday they plan to inject the Obama administration-proposed defense cuts into that debate, saying the president is trying to use military cuts to look like a federal deficit cutter. They also hit Obama for cutting defense spending while not doing the same for domestic programs.

"Once again, the president has chosen the politically expedient course, rather than trying to deal with our out-of-control auto-pilot spending programs in a responsible fashion," said Missouri Republican Todd Akin. "The president was elected on promises of hope and change, but the only change we have seen is radically increased deficit spending."

Obama-appointed Pentagon officials noted Monday during a press briefing that the spending cuts were ordered by a debt-reduction dealapproved last August by Congress.

3. Naval Fleet Size. Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates will no doubt continue pointing out what appears to be a contradiction between the Obama administration's new national defense strategy and its 2013 budget plan. The strategy calls for an increased focus in the Asia-Pacific region, but cuts the size of the Navy's fleet.

"Despite the goal of pivoting to Asia, a theater where naval assets are decisive, the budget calls for retiring nine ships and removes sixteen more from the new construction plan," McKeon said. Navy officials say the service will do just fine with the number of ships Obama's budget pays for.

But GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney already has latched onto this issue, saying he would increase Obama's plan to build nine war ships per year to 15. While Romney has yet to clearly say how he would pay for that increase, it is clear the size of the Navy's fleet will be a regular issue on the stump.

Even some Democrat-leaning defense experts see a gamble in Obama's shift toward the Asia-Pacific region.

"The United States may seek to emphasize the Asia-Pacific, security threats elsewhere-particularly in the greater Middle East-may be more likely to require a military response over the next decade," said Travis Sharp of the Center for a New American Security, a think tank launched by two eventual Obama administration officials.