Will the Army and Marines take a big hit once the United States wiggles out of Iraq and Afghanistan? And after exiting, will the U.S. military continue on the road away from Fulda Gap and toward Tora Bora?
These are some of the questions our Jeff Shear asked recently in pieces likes “An Army of Change” and “No Way Out: Exiting Afghanistan and Iraq,” and the dawn of 2012 provided crystal-clear answers as the Obama administration outlined the new, less-expensive look for defense, complete with sops toward soft power and development projects as well as hardware and troops.
In a Thursday announcement, the president and various military officials emphasized that the reduction in Pentagon spending over the next decade — and remember that thanks to two wars, the U.S. is spending more in absolute dollars that even before — "is not a haircut but a reshaping,” as Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter put it.
Tomorrow’s military not only will be “smaller and leaner,” explained Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, “but will be agile, flexible, ready, and technologically advanced.” In practice, that means more special forces, more gadgets, more sophisticated intelligence gathering, more reservists — and fewer ground pounders.
The specifics of these proposals are promised over the coming week, but follow the observation in Shear's story that "the likelihood of the U.S. becoming involved in another Iraq/Afghanistan conflict is considered remote and politically unacceptable. Not only will forces be cut, but their mission will be called into question." That statement could almost have come directly from Carter’s mouth, who did say, "Iraq-like conflicts are unlikely, but we will maintain our mid-level officers in the event we need to build up our ground forces."
Maintaining that corporate knowledge by retaining mid-career majors and colonels seems like a reasonable way to allow ground forces to scale up when global tensions suggest large ground forces would be useful again (although it would have been re-assuring to hear a similar call for NCOs like sergeants). “Wholesale divestment of the capability to conduct any mission would be unwise, based on historical and projected uses of U.S. military forces and our inability to predict the future,” explained the strategy blueprint, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” that accompanied the briefing.
Shear also said that a leaner force would rely more on the Air Force, Navy, and special forces, and that is definitely in the Pentagon’s sights. An 11-carrier Navy and a 2,500-aircraft Air Force seem safe, although the expensive new F-35 fighter program, while not being axed, is being slowed. (The brass termed it “reversibility,” the ability to maintain an industrial base without blowing through the budget.)
"Science, technology, and innovation, are seed corn of the future,” said Carter, while the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., explained, "We will invest more in our special operations forces. These are agile and flexible forces good at working with partners. As our wars draw down, we're going to retain those forces and leverage them with other nations."
Of course, a lot of Shear’s coverage has looked at the use of contractors – the soy extenders of the Pentagon and increasingly Foggy Bottom – as the number of uniformed troops falls. That issue was not addressed Thursday.
Interestingly, the briefing echoed another voice in Shear’s articles, that of Sen. John McCain, who over the summer lectured the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
“So we have announced cuts without the strategy to go along with it?” McCain asked Dempsey. “That’s not comforting.” Dempsey’s response didn’t satisfy McCain, who continued, “In most cases I’ve seen, the strategy has been developed and then the budget is arrived at and not the other way around.”
And so President Obama, in addressing the comprehensive defense review, stressed one point above others: “the size and the structure of our military and defense budgets have to be driven by a strategy, not the other way around.”