After a decade at war, foot soldiers get the pink slips
On the morning of Thursday, Jan. 5, President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and other defense officials unveiled the outline of the Pentagon's new defense strategy, which Panetta described as a "strategic shift" to the future. The presentation included only broad strategic guidance, and officials refused to discuss the new strategy's consequences for specific programs or budgets. The task for Obama, Panetta and others at the briefing was to reassure both allies and adversaries about the future of U.S. military power while simultaneously explaining how Pentagon planners were going to get by with $487 billion less than they recently expected. Panetta and others at the podium acknowledged some of the risks that would result. How potential adversaries will interpret the new strategy remains to be seen.
The new strategic guidance ignores the additional $600 billion defense-budget sequestration that was triggered in November by the failure of the deficit-reduction supercommittee and that is due to strike in 2013. At the briefing, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the upcoming Pentagon budget, absorbing the $487 billion blow, will be stunning enough to many on Capitol Hill. Boeing's announcement on Thursday that it is closing a large aircraft plant in Kansas, with the possible loss of 2,160 jobs, may foreshadow some of the economic pain to come, even after the Congress presumably voids the impending sequester.
Without discussing numbers, Panetta and his colleagues warned of deep cuts to the Army and Marine Corps. The accompanying strategic guidance document plainly states that "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations" [italics in original]. It will be difficult to find many observers agitating for more "large-scale, prolonged stability operations." The risk, however, is that the United States could find itself caught short by simultaneous crises that boil over before the Pentagon can mobilize, retrain, and deploy Army and Marine Corps reservists.
The ability to cope with two major regional crises nearly simultaneously is a long-standing assumption that the Pentagon has been edging away from for a decade. The Obama administration is now definitively abandoning it. In the case of multiple crises in the future, the United States may find itself using heavy air and naval firepower in scenarios that in the past might have been deterred by the timely deployment of ground troops, troops that in the future might not be available.
The administration's new strategy is also likely to take an ax to the forward presence of U.S. forces, especially outside the Asia-Pacific region. Panetta said that the U.S. presence in Europe will "adapt and evolve," which is a synonym for European base closures, troop withdrawals, and a downgraded relationship with NATO. Given the low external security threat to Europe (a sharp contrast with Asia), this makes some sense. Europe, however, remains an important transit hub for U.S. operations in the Middle East. The result will be one more strategic risk the Obama team apparently thinks it will be able to manage.
While ground-force staffing, personnel costs, and some weapon systems will be cut or delayed, there are winners in the strategic review. Special operations forces, cyberwarfare programs, unmanned systems, and intelligence gathering will get more funding. More broadly, the new strategy is counting on forces that will be, in Panetta's words, "more agile, more flexible, ready to deploy quickly, innovative, and technologically advanced" to make up for what these forces previously possessed in numbers. How those troops that survive the budget cuts will become more agile, flexible, and innovative remains to be explained.
Interestingly, it was the Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, and vice chairman, Adm. James Winnefeld, who stressed the need to retain a capacity to regenerate forces and capabilities during future crises. Winnefeld described the need to be "humble" regarding this or any strategy and thus to make no irreversible decisions. Dempsey defended the strategy as being the right one for this moment in time, implying that as circumstances change, so will the strategy.
Dempsey and Winnefeld may be resigning themselves to a repeat of this budget-and-strategy drill in less than a year, under either a new Republican president or changed circumstances as Obama's second term begins. In the meantime, the reality of defense cuts will soon arrive on Capitol Hill, in constituencies in Kansas and elsewhere, and in the perceptions and calculations of Washington's friends and adversaries.