WASHINGTON — Last February, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates quipped that the U.S. military has a perfect record in predicting the threats of the future.
“We have never once gotten it right,” he said. “From the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more. ... We had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged.”
But less than a year later, military planners are on the cusp of that kind of strategic forecasting once again, planning for a smaller, faster force to handle insurgency fights worldwide while eschewing more traditional, not-gonna-happen-again large land wars like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama made his first trip to the Pentagon briefing room to unveil the country’s new defense strategy, emphasizing special operations and counterterrorism and pushing aside long-term nation-building aspirations. On Thursday, Pentagon leaders will brief reporters on what that means for the military’s short-term budget plans, and hint as to just how many soldiers and Marines might be out of jobs in coming years.
Fine-grained budget details won’t be available until the formal release of the federal budget request on February 13. But many defense analysts say enough information has trickled out that it’s possible to make initial assessments about future U.S. military capabilities.
The conclusions they draw vary dramatically.
For critics, the drawdown in ground forces is a foolhardy return to the post-Cold War “hollow force,” a state current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has repeatedly vowed to avoid.
The Army is slated to fall to 520,000 active-duty troops by 2016 from a current number of nearly 570,000, but some fear subsequent cuts could go deeper than the rumored floor of 490,000 soldiers in the next decade. Republican lawmakers have labeled the move a retreat from America’s global responsibilities and a danger to U.S. national security.
James Carafano, a retired Army officer and policy researcher at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, said dramatic troop cuts will sap the military’s ability to conduct even limited operations, noting that an Army of fewer than 500,000 troops struggled to carry out peacekeeping operations in the Balkans and elsewhere in the 1990s.
“People say ‘Oh, the only thing we won’t be able to do is more Iraqs and Afghanistans.’” Carafano said. “We’re talking about going back to an Army in the ‘90s that could barely do business.”
Max Boot, a conservative author and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the military can’t sustain losing tens of thousands more troops unless leaders are also willing to abandon many existing diplomatic and humanitarian missions.
But supporters of the strategy change insist that’s simply not the case. Pentagon planners have been talking about a smaller, more efficient force for years, and the shift simply codifies those new priorities. Panetta has publicly insisted that the services will be ready for any threat, even if that means a return to a large-scale ground war.
“At worst, we’re talking about going back to where we were just before Sept. 11,” said Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress in Washington.
Retired Gen. David Barno, who served in Afghanistan, echoed that sentiment. He said an active-duty Army of 482,000 troops and a Marine Corps of 175,000 would be sufficient, even with the potential threats lurking worldwide.
“I think those are both within the range of acceptable risk in the world we’re living in — if you build in the ability to grow the force rapidly,” said Barno, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank with close ties to the Obama administration.
In the event of major conflict, DOD officials contend, the force could quickly be inflated with plentiful, well-trained reserves, veterans of the current wars. Even without such prior planning, the Army and Marines quickly grew for Iraq and Afghanistan, Barno noted.
Critics and supporters both acknowledge that what the military can accomplish is only half the equation. What allies believe it can do, and how they view the moves, will also play a critical role in the worldwide defense posture.
And the two sides also agree that European leaders will be the most likely to react to the changes with alarm. Barry Pavel, the director of the international security program for the NATO-oriented Atlantic Council, said the impending reality of U.S. force cuts are already giving those allies pause.
“For Europe, it was a one-two punch,” said Pavel, a former senior official with the Defense Department and National Security Council.
Not only does the new strategy essentially label Europe a tertiary defense concern behind Asia and the Middle East, he noted, but it also precedes the planned withdrawal of two combat brigades from Europe.
The U.S. commitment to replace them with rotating troops, if implemented, likely means no loss of capability, Pavel said, but it sends a message that Europe needs to pay more for its own defense.
“I think some of this is healthy,” he said. “For a community that has not been pulling its weight ... it is good to be thinking the U.S. will not be leading every aspect of every operation in Europe all the time.”
Richard Betts, director of the International Security Policy program at Columbia University, said that burden shift is long overdue. A force drawdown in Europe will force those allies to take on more missions and responsibility, but still leave the U.S. with enough capability to respond to large-scale threats.
But Boot called the new strategy “a dangerous message to the world that America is in retreat.” Upping the number of ground forces in the event of a major conflict takes years — the Guard and reserves weren’t ready to fill that role in 2001, he argued — and the deterrent threat of a large U.S. military decreases with each troop reduction.
Programs and Technology
Under the strategy laid out by the president, the trade-off for fewer ground troops is more technological capabilities, to ensure the remaining U.S. fighters have an edge on the battlefield.
As such, Barno said he expects the Navy and Air Force to be spared from the brunt of budget-cutting. Both services are highly dependent on expensive equipment that, unlike low-level ground troops, can’t be quickly acquired when needed.
Panetta affirmed last week that he was committed to maintaining a fleet of 11 aircraft carriers, and approved the continued development of the Marine Corps’ version of the F-35.
Critics note that protecting expensive programs such as the F-35 in a time of tight budgets comes at the expense of more important measures of military readiness — sheer troop numbers, maintenance and training.
“Technology doesn’t win wars,” said Winslow Wheeler, a former Congressional Research Service defense specialist and longtime critic of Pentagon spending practices. “Trained, motivated people win wars. We learned that in Vietnam where despite our huge tech advantage, we lost the war.”
But supporters of the new strategy insist that advanced technology can help maintain U.S. defenses in the face of decreasing end strength.
The rise of intelligent robots, for example — both aerial drones and ground-based — means that capability will be increasingly available as autonomous force multipliers, said Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution, a liberal Washington-based think tank. Meanwhile, more and more powerful computers with advanced analytical programs may eventually take much of the load of intelligence analysis off humans.
But for now, Singer said, the programs headed in this direction are dwarfed by giant and sometimes controversial programs from previous eras, such as the F-35 and the Navy’s Virginia-class submarines. As budgets tighten, such programs have influential defenders, he said.
“The challenge is how to keep existing programs of record from strangling the next generation of technology,” Singer said.