Last week, the Pentagon embarked on a yearlong review of its strategic priorities. In the months to come, defense officials will be facing some exceptionally painful choices about where to focus their limited resources in the wake of the economic crisis and the ever-rising tab for seven years of war. The Defense Department got used to being on the receiving end of blank checks to fight tough military campaigns on two fronts, but money is tight now.
Indeed, budget constraints are making it increasingly difficult for the U.S. military to project power to hot spots around the globe, with an alarming and growing effect on national security, some longtime military analysts say.
The Pentagon is currently preparing its Quadrennial Defense Review, the closely watched blueprint for addressing what the military considers to be the chief threats it faces in the coming years. Michele Flournoy, President Obama's policy chief at the Pentagon and the Department of Defense's third-highest-ranking civilian, outlined the administration's key priorities this week. They include a renewed focus on training U.S. troops for irregular, as opposed to conventional, combat, she says, particularly given the dearth of conventional military threats on the horizon.
Senior defense officials echo this need, stressing that radical Islamist groups pose the most immediate challenge to America and that the U.S. military still needs to be better positioned to "defeat or at least suppress them," Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a longtime military strategist, told Congress last week.
But despite the high level of concern about irregular warfare and terrorist attacks, the Pentagon still faces a number of conventional threats, including Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons and China's development of submarines to "stalk" American carriers and form "picket lines" close to U.S. bases near Guam, according to Krepinevich.
The Pentagon is facing some "very difficult choices" as it assesses how best to balance strategic risk, says Flournoy. "In a world in which resources are limited, particularly in economic crisis, we have to be very specific about how we do this," she added.
Indeed, the consequences of growing budgetary constraints, coupled with the rise of powers such as Iran and China and the accelerating diffusion of sophisticated military technologies, are considerable, and such trends are making it increasingly difficult for the U.S. military to project its power in strategically pivotal parts of the world, according to some military analysts, who also voice concerns that the Pentagon is not placing enough emphasis on conventional military threats.
"Washington will likely find it progressively more expensive—and perhaps prohibitively expensive" to project power in some vital regions, says Krepinevich. "Even forces able to deploy forward successfully are liable to find it increasingly difficult to defend what they have been sent to protect," he said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The U.S. Navy, for example, patrols in confined waters such as the Persian Gulf. Operating in these areas close to shore, however, gives them little warning time to respond to threats such as high-speed, sea-skimming antiship cruise missiles, as well as high-speed suicide boats packed with explosives that are able to hide easily among commercial ships. Both "are proliferating and becoming far more difficult to detect than those that plagued the U.S. fleet in the First Gulf War," Krepinevich said.
In addition, mines have the potential to slow ships' movement and restrict their maneuverability, making them "easier prey for missiles and suicide craft." Krepinevich added that Iran is also actively trying to master the operation of quiet diesel submarines in the Gulf's noisy waters. "All this," he said, "suggests that the Persian Gulf, the jugular vein of the world's oil supply, risks gradually becoming a 'no go' zone for the U.S. Navy."