The Obama administration is ushering in a new era in which the meaning of what constitutes a U.S. military presence in some corners of the globe will look very different than it does today.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in recent weeks has used words like "innovative" and "rotational" when describing how a leaner military will maintain a presence in places it's been for decades—like Europe—as well as emerging hot spots like Africa and Asia. Analysts and lawmakers are quick to note that the defense chief isn't talking about maintaining all permanent bases in Europe or building ones in new regions—ushering in a major shift in the way America flexes its military muscle overseas.
The Obama administration's new national defense strategy, released this month, says smaller annual Pentagon budgets "will require innovative and creative solutions to maintain our support for allies." And smaller budgets will mean "thoughtful choices will need to be made regarding the location and frequency of these operations."
Panetta has said in recent weeks that the U.S. military will shift course from decades-old practices toward developing "low-cost and small-footprint approaches to achieving our security objectives." That, he said during a Jan. 5 Pentagon briefing, will mean "emphasizing rotational deployments, emphasizing military exercises with these nations and doing other innovative approaches to maintain a presence throughout the rest of the world."
The defense secretary has been quick to assure Washington's European allies that the U.S. military might be there in smaller numbers—two Army brigades (up to 15,000 troops) will be withdrawn to save money and shift focus toward Asia—but its footprint is not going to vanish completely. "We need to strengthen those partnerships, whether it's NATO in Europe or it's working with the Asian nations, whether it's working with other alliances and coalitions," Panetta said during a Jan. 12 speech in El Paso, Texas. "We need to build those kinds of partnerships."
But the world is changing, including the places where potential threats to the United States and its interests reside and operate, Panetta made clear. "At the same time we need to have a presence, whether it's Latin America, whether it's Africa, whether it's Asia," he said. "We need to have a continuing and rotational presence."
"I think we're definitely at the front end of a shift here. ... What we are seeing are hints of Panetta simultaneously reassuring allies while also creating space for budget savings," says Matthew Leatherman, an analyst at the Stimson Center in Washington. "You do that by thinking creatively about what [military] presence means." [Iran Threatens U.S., Persian Gulf Cities with Missile Attacks.]
"The administration under Secretary Robert Gates and now Panetta has changed the interpretation of 'force posture' for the Pentagon," says Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute. "Posture is more than basing and footprint, but also force size and structure, as well as the agreements the U.S. has with other nations."
If the idea of a leaner U.S. military deployed to more points around the globe sounds familiar, it's because Bush-era defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld proposed similar changes-before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "Rumsfeld talked about 'lily pad bases' with a lighter-weight force spread to more places around the world," Leatherman said. "This has the potential to be a good idea. ... But it will be very difficult to realize—it's never been as clean and easy as when a new policy proposal has been rolled out."
That's because some European nations enjoy economic benefits from hosting thousands of American troops and their families at permanent bases. Another hurdle: Congressional hawks in Washington who believe a large U.S. military footprint is the best way to demonstrate American power and deter would-be aggressors.
"This new definition of presence is mediocrity at its best," says Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee. "Would you feel safer if there are people trying to break into your house and you have security people outside, or with just a security camera—because that's their definition. ... What's more powerful: Seeing an aircraft carrier out there, or a sign saying we're going to have an exercise in a few months?"
Forbes said defense-minded House Republican lawmakers intend to make the Obama administration's new definition of military presence a major campaign issue. "We are going to take this to the American people with the hope that by the time we get to November, the American people are going to ask: 'Just what kind of military and defense should we have?'"
The GOP lawmaker and other hawkish Republicans, including the GOP presidential candidates, are betting American voters will side with their vision of a larger U.S. military than the one Obama envisions. (Democratic congressional sources are quick to note that Obama is the president who killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, turned the tide in Afghanistan, dismantled al Qaeda's leadership structure and helped remove Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.)
Forbes said he has personally delivered his message to the remaining GOP presidential candidates' national security advisers. "Based on their responses, they are very, very concerned about direction we're heading," Forbes said.
Eaglen sees a preemptive move in the administration's shift aimed at countering congressional critics. "Changing the definition more subtly from tangibles to more qualified activities is the perfect solution to a budget that will cut U.S. presence abroad, our overseas infrastructure, the number of those in uniform, and what they're able to do around the world each day," she said. "By changing how Congress traditionally measures presence from hard to soft, the military can claim an apples-to-oranges comparison in response to any concerns that we're drawing down too steeply, leaving allies in a lurch, or abandoning traditional security agreements and commitments."
Details on just how the Pentagon and White House will alter the military's presence around the globe remain unclear. A Pentagon spokesman declined comment today, saying more clarity is coming Thursday when Panetta previews the Defense Department's 2013 budget plan. To that end, analysts say it is too soon to pinpoint just how much the department might save under a new global basing plan.
"The budgetary implications very unclear," Leatherman says, "Reducing the number of troops in Europe could make things less expensive there. But in Africa and Latin America, where we haven't had big a presence, it could end up costing more. That has the potential to balance out any savings."