Pentagon seeks to reshape U.S. military into a leaner, stronger & more versatile force amid steep budget cuts

President Barack Obama and top Pentagon officials say the U.S. military will be revamped to create a leaner but stronger and more versatile force as the country confronts an increasingly austere fiscal challenges and unpredictable security threats following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama & Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. IMAGE SOURCE: Department of Defense.

The Defense Strategic Guidance outlines the spending priorities, geopolitical focus, and reorganization of the armed forces that will guide President Obama’s fiscal year 2013 budget. The president’s budget is expected to be released shortly after his State of the Union address later this month.

“The question that this strategy answers is what kind of military will we need long after the wars of the last decade are over,” said Obama.

The defense strategic review was prompted by the $487 billion cuts to defense discretionary spending between 2012 and 2020. The cuts were mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 passed by Congress as part of the debt ceiling compromise last August. (Under the Budget Control Act, if Congress fails to reduce the deficit by another $1.2 trillion by the end of this year, the Defense Department could face an additional $882 billion in sequester cuts starting in January 2013.)

Read more: Sequestration will result in a ‘hollowed out’ military, armed forces chiefs warned

However, Pentagon officials repeatedly stressed the strategic changes would have been necessary even without the cuts imposed by Congress.

“The [defense] department would need to make a strategic shift regardless of the nation’s fiscal situation. We are at that point in history. That’s the reality of the world we live in,” said Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

Shifts in geopolitical focus  

As the U.S. completes its military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department will shift its focus to protect the nation’s economic interests and counter emerging security threats in the Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions.

The Asia-Pacific region is growing in importance due to the increased trade and economic competition between the United States, China, and India. Some of the world’s most important trade routes cut through the Western Pacific, East Asia, and Indian Ocean. Any disruptions or restrictions in accessing those sea routes could pose serious economic consequences for the United States and its global trading partners.

“The United States will continue to make the necessary investments to ensure that we maintain regional access and the ability to operate freely,” according to the Defense Strategic Guidance.

China’s emergence as a global military & economic power

The Defense Strategic Guidance acknowledged “China’s emergence as a regional power” and its “potential to affect the U.S. economy and security in a variety of ways.” In particular, the memo raised concerns over China’s growing military power and called for greater clarity in China’s strategic intentions. However, given that China is the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt (with $1.13 trillion as of October 2011 or 24% of the total foreign debt owed by the United States), the memo was quick to emphasize the two nation’s common interests in building strong bilateral ties and maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

Pakistan and North Korea are two nations with nuclear capabilities that could pose serious security threats to the United States and the global community.

Pakistan & South Asia

Although the United States has provided billions in military aid to Pakistan since 9/11, relations between the two countries have remained strained, especially following the killing of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

The Bin Laden raid in Abbottabad, home to the Pakistani military elite, was conducted by U.S. Special Forces without the knowledge of the Pakistani government due to suspicions that Bin Laden may have received tacit support from members of the Pakistani military. In July, the United States suspended more than $800 million in military aid to Pakistan after Pakistan ousted U.S. military trainers after the Bin Laden raid. Tensions escalated in November when Pakistan shut down critical supply routes to NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan after a NATO airstrike killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border in northwest Pakistan.

Furthermore, the Pakistani government’s support of the United States and NATO operations in Afghanistan have caused political frictions domestically as many Pakistanis oppose the U.S. war in Afghanistan. This has resulted in a reluctance by the Pakistani government to crack down on militants and violent extremists. The internal volatility combined with Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities have prompted Defense Department to invest in a “long-term strategic partnership with India” to counter-balance Pakistan’s influence and power in South Asia.

North Korea

Despite the recent death of Kim Jong-il, the uncertainties surrounding North Korea’s future and the development of its nuclear program mean the United States would have to continue to work with regional allies – such as South Korea, Japan, and China – to “deter and defend against provocation from North Korea.” The United States and its allies may have to depend on China, which has maintained close diplomatic and trade relations with Pyongyang over the years, to help guide North Korea’s development toward peace and disarmament in the future.

Middle East

In addition to Asia-Pacific, the U.S. military will also shift its focus to the Middle East with particular emphasis on countering violent extremism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. One of the top priorities would be to “prevent Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon capability and counter its destabilizing policies” in the region as well as defending Israel’s security.

Although the memo did not draw much attention to energy security, it’s obvious that America’s continuing dependence on foreign oil will all but guarantee the necessity of maintaining a strong U.S. presence in the Middle East for the foreseeable future. The United States consumes more than 20% of the world’s oil, and even as the world’s third largest petroleum producer, the U.S. has to import more than half of its oil to keep up with demand. Ramping up U.S. oil production, as some politicians have advocated, would offer little reprieve in the long-term considering that the United States holds only 19 billion barrels of oil in proven reserves (accounting for about 2% of the world’s reserves) compared to the 266 billion barrels in Saudi Arabia, 136.2 billion barrels in Iran, 115 billion barrels in Iraq, and 97.8 billion barrels in the United Arab Emirates. Until the United States overhauls its oil consumption practices and/or develops sustainable energy resources, it will have little choice but to expend more military manpower and other resources in the Middle East.

Read more: Breaking America’s dependence on foreign oil


Finally, the U.S. military’s growing focus on Asia-Pacific and the Middle East suggests that the U.S. may scale back its involvement in NATO but maintain its Article 5 commitments, which requires the United States to respond if any NATO member were attacked and vice versa. (Article 5 was invoked for the first time in NATO’s history on Sept. 12, 2001 and the reason why NATO has been involved in the war in Afghanistan. Visit NATO’s website for a more comprehensive background on Article 5.) Western European allies would likely be called upon to assume more responsibilities and contribute resources to develop alliance’s defense capabilities in the future.

“This is not a separation in any way from NATO,” assured Panetta. “We’ll maintain our Article 5 requirements. Not only are we going to continue our requirements there, but we are going to develop the kind of innovative presence that we think will make clear to Europe and those that have been our strong allies over the past that we remain committed to protecting them.”

Moving away from prolonged, large-scale stability & counter-insurgency operations

In light of the growing focus on Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, the U.S. military will move away from conducting the prolonged, large-scale counter-insurgency and nation-building operations that have characterized the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, the U.S. will focus on providing military-to-military training to help other nations fight insurgents with the goal of committing fewer U.S. troops to prolonged operations in the future.

“This does not mean abandoning [counter-insurgency operations] or any such thing, but we do not see the U.S. conducting such operations on its own as likely in the future,” said Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. “In any event, we will preserve the know-how and capability to regenerate forces if such a need does arise.”

Reducing force structure

The budget cuts will also force the Defense Department to overhaul the structure and size of the U.S. military after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end.

According to Panetta, the Army and Marine Corps – which were scaled up to support two concurrent large-scale, long-term wars – will be reduced when the military operations ends in both in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“A smaller, ready, and well-equipped military is much more preferable to a larger ill-prepared force,” Panetta said.

The downsizing would help the Defense Department focus its finite budget on training and equipping a smaller but more agile and versatile force as well as increase investments in developing and improving special operation forces; unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and recognizance technologies; nuclear deterrence; and cyber security. Meanwhile, maintaining a right mix of Reserve and National Guard force and preserving key defense industrial bases will help the Defense Department quickly regenerate and mobilize forces to support a variety of contingency operations as needed.

“The U.S. joint force will be smaller and it will be leaner. But its great strength will be that it will be more agile, more flexible, ready to deploy quickly, innovative, and technologically advanced. That is the force for the future,” Panetta said.

Maintaining capabilities to confront more than one conflict at a time

Even with the decreased capacity, Panetta said he is confident that the U.S. military will still be able to confront multiple, concurrent, and complex missions.

“How we defeat the enemy may very well vary across conflicts. But make no mistake, we will have the capability to confront and defeat more than one adversary at a time,” said Panetta.

According to the Defense Strategic Guidance, the scaled down joint force will enable the U.S. to successfully handle a large-scale operation in one region while “denying the objectives – or imposing unacceptable costs on – an opportunistic aggressor in a second region.” In other words, the future U.S. military force will be able to simultaneously engage in a conventional ground war in one region and defend attacks in another region.

Fighting two concurrent long-term, large-scale wars  – like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan – will require the military to expand, and Congress will have to authorize the additional funds for such contingency operations as it did for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“[The Defense Strategic Guidance] gives us what we need in this world and within this budget to provide the best possible defense for our nation at a time of great transition. It prepares us for what we anticipate we will need in 2020,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “This is not the strategy of a military in decline. This is a strategy and a joint force on which the nation can depend.”


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