America’s foes and friends cast a critical eye on the U.S. military Monday following Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s preview of the budget he hopes to shape.
A massively reduced Army and the elimination of some major attack aircraft programs raised eyebrows in China, Iran, the U.K. and the United Arab Emirates, where local news services highlighted those points of the proposed defense budget Hagel will present to Congress next week.
In his speech Monday, Hagel tried to define America’s defense priorities drawing down from two protracted land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and instead focusing largely on the Asia-Pacific region, in keeping with President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy. Hagel also referenced maintaining alliances in the Middle East and Europe, in that order, as well as engaging countries in other regions and hunting terrorists worldwide.
“Allies and enemies watch this closely,” said Barry Pavel, a defense budget expert with the Atlantic Council, on a conference call shortly after Hagel’s remarks Monday. The secretary’s carefully chosen words to define America’s engagement abroad presents a “unique packaging,” Pavel said, presenting newly framed regional priorities. This will likely be drawn out further upon the release of the Quadrennial Defense Review, which the Pentagon is expected to release in the coming weeks.
Defense experts have questioned Hagel’s continued decision to draw down U.S. infrastructure in Europe, considered the chief staging ground for operations in North Africa and the Middle East.
“That really baffles me,” Pavel added.
NATO is based in Brussels and U.S. Africa Command is headquartered in Germany. Special response teams of 500 Marines were based in both Spain and Italy following the 2011 insurgent assault on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. Hagel only singled out Europe Monday as an international region where these cuts will likely continue.
At the top of worldwide headline space sat the announcement of massive reductions to the Army, which would fall to a level unseen since the end of World War II. “Army cuts limit U.S. ability to wage war,” read one headline in the Times of London.
The secretary’s list of priorities includes trading aging aircraft like the clunky but reliable A-10 Thunderbolt II for futuristic alternatives such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, now considered the most expensive in defense history. The Pentagon will also retire the U-2 “Dragon Lady” spy plane for a drone alternative in the Global Hawk, representing the military’s widespread preference for cheaper and safer unmanned alternatives.
Defense officials, cautious to refrain from using the term “enemy,” claim these advancements will help the U.S. keep up with its competitors in China and Russia, and its need to perfect a “fifth generation fighter.”
Indeed, Russian state news service RIA Novosti all but ignored the U.S. defense announcement on Monday, opting instead to run stories about a new “laser shield” its military has developed for military optics, “future soldier” gear for ground forces and a new stealth fighter currently in the prototype stage.