Hawkish Republican presidential candidates and lawmakers have painted cataclysmic portraits of what will happen as a result of Pentagon spending cuts. But a closer examination of Defense Department officials' comments and Pentagon budget documents suggests much of the current force will remain in place for around another half decade.
There are three issues that suggest the U.S. military will retain much of the combat power it employed since 9/11 in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as places far and wide in pursuit of al Qaeda.
1. Troops Cuts Come Later. Pentagon officials were forced to swell the size of the Army and Marine Corps to simultaneously conduct the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, a pair of troop-intensive stability operations. President Obama's GOP foes say his plan to shed nearly 100,000 soldiers by 2017 will mean America will be unable to fight future wars--especially two at once. But Army Gen. Raymond Odierno this week revealed a hedge in the plan. "What I'm worried about is if we get too small, [potential foes will] miscalculate," Odierno told reporters this week in Washington. The Middle East, remains "a very uncertain area, and that's what concerns me." That is why the Army chief insisted the reductions to his ranks, which even he says will eventually be wise operationally and budgetarily, be put off as long as possible.
"That's another reason I asked for six years to downsize the Army--if something happens," he said. "You want to make sure the president has the option to react however he so chooses." Christopher Preble, a senior analyst at the Cato Institute, wrote recently that the U.S. military "is not in danger of declining to second-class status." When taking into account "our still prodigious advantages over any conceivable combination of rivals," Preble wrote, "we could spend considerably less and continue to enjoy a margin of security and safety that our ancestors would have envied."
2. Counterterrorism Tools in Place. As Washington has honed its approaches over the years for locating, tracking, disrupting, and engaging al Qaeda around the globe, the Pentagon has spent billions on all kinds of advanced combat and supporting systems. One example: the armed drone aircraft U.S. officials have used to take out terrorist leaders, like one late last month that U.S. officials have said killed high-level members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
"While the Predator unmanned aircraft was already a program of record at the start of the decade, 81 percent of the Predator buy was purchased in the past 10 years," according to the Stimson Center. Many of those platforms will be around for a while, analysts say. That is good news for the Pentagon as its slice of the federal budget pie begins to shrink. "The administration deserves points for bowing to reality in a few key areas," Preble wrote. "For example, terrorism remains at the top of its list of concerns, but the country will fight this scourge through targeted operations, not open-ended nation-building missions."
3. New Naval, Air Systems Protected. During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Army and Marine Corps got more funding and more equipment because they were doing the lion's share of the work. As the Obama administration shifts toward the Asia-Pacific region, it is proposing to increase funding to buy new weapons for the Navy and Air Force.
"First of all, one of the things we all have to remember about the strategy is in many cases it's a lot more about where you're going to cut rather than where you're going to add," Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Adm. James Winnefeld told reporters in late January. "And there are much fewer reductions, I would say, in the things that are focused on the Pacific."
For the Air Force, the Obama 2013 Pentagon budget calls for retiring many older planes; but it also puts the service, for the first time in recent history, on track to eventually field its three top hardware priorities: F-35 fighters, a new bomber aircraft fleet and a new aerial tanker fleet. "Despite the many challenges that we have faced," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said at a Pentagon briefing, "today the Air Force is still, by any objective standard, the world's best."