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.