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National Defense > Blog > Posts > In Obama’s New Military Strategy, No Radical Change, Politically Acceptable Budget Cuts
In Obama’s New Military Strategy, No Radical Change, Politically Acceptable Budget Cuts
President Obama unveiled a new military strategy, "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense," that he described as necessary to “clarify our strategic interests in a fast changing world” at a time when the United States also must reduce spending in order to “renew our economic strength here at home.”

At his first-ever news conference at the Pentagon, Obama insisted that coming budget cuts are being made “responsibly” as the “tide of war is receding.” The strategic review that Obama oversaw personally acknowledges that now is the time to ask what kind of military will be needed going forward, Obama said.

The review acknowledges that the era of nation-building campaigns with large military footprints is over, and that more attention will be paid to strengthening U.S. military presence in Asia. Obama said future military spending will focus on modernizing the military, especially in areas such as counter-terrorism, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, countering weapons of mass destruction and systems that can challenge enemy capabilities to deny U.S. military access to hotspots. The military will be leaner, Obama said,  but the United States will maintain military superiority.

Budget details for fiscal year 2013 will come next month. Some will say the cuts are too big, others will say they are not enough, and program advocates will fight over pet projects, Obama noted, but he said specific budget decisions should be viewed in perspective. Since 9/11 the Defense Department´s budget grew at an extraordinary pace, Obama said. Over the next decade, the budget will grow less, but will still grow, and it will still be larger than it was at the end of the Bush administration, he said.

The strategy is being introduced at a time when the president is positioning himself to foil criticism from GOP presidential candidates that cutting $487 billion from military spending over the next decade will threaten national security. The strategy also marks the president´s first attempt at articulating a path forward for the U.S. military after a decade of costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As expected, the Obama administration is finally departing from the "two war" strategy that had been in place since 1993, and that called for the U.S. military to be prepared to fight two regional wars simultaneously. The new plan is to posture the U.S. military to be able to cope with one major conflict and still have the ability to deter another adversary.

Following the president´s remarks, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the strategic review constitutes a ”historic shift to the future” and a “strategic turning point.”

The preponderance of budget cuts will come from ground forces, in an acknowledgment that war fatigue and a trillion-dollar tab from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts were significant factors in the review that started nine months ago.

By all measures, the proposed spending reductions are moderate -- $487 billion out of a six-trillion-dollar 10-year plan -- but still expected to cause pain for the Pentagon, which has grown accustomed to double-digit budget increases since 2001. Last month, Congress approved a $662 billion defense budget for fiscal year 2012 -- $27 billion less than Obama has requested last February, and $43 billion less than Congress approved for fiscal year 2011.

There still a hovering cloud of potentially another $500 billion in cuts, scheduled to take effect in January 2013, that were triggered by the failure last fall of the congressional “supercommittee” to come up with a deficit-reduction plan.

Panetta strongly opposes these cuts and has said he is hopeful that an omnibus budget reduction deal will be reached this year, and will spare defense from the so-called sequestration.

In the post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan era, the Pentagon will set sights on China as a potential peer competitor. An evolving concept known as “air-sea battle” assumes that the next war will be fought by air and sea forces against a technologically advanced competitor.

A big still unanswered question are the specific reductions in the size of the U.S. military force. Panetta said the military will be “smaller and leaner” but said details of particular reductions in force will not be unveiled until the budget request for 2013 is sent to Congress next month.

Critics already have written off this review as yet another exercise in “salami slicing” that fails to fundamentally reshape the military. Roles-and-missions reviews have a poor track record of creating sweeping reforms, or recommending that the United States scale back commitments. In fact U.S. military officials in recent months have called for greater global engagements, especially an expansion of military presence in Asia.

This review, like every other review since the end of the Cold War, mostly is driven by budgets, not by geopolitical strategy.

It also remains to be seen how the military will modernize aging weaponry. Obama said the review seeks to push modernization beyond the current Cold War era systems. Despite a soaring budget budget over the past decade, the pace of recapitalization of military equipment has not improved significantly from the 1990s. This remains a “major issue facing the Defense Department now and in the coming years,” said Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Modernization programs have been plagued by the piling on of “exquisite” requirements, which have driven up costs and stretched out procurement schedules. The perennial “bow wave” of equipment needs that get pushed out year after year remains in place.

The coming budget cuts are expected to trigger a "resource war” among the branches of the military. The Army already is pushing back against the emerging narrative in Washington that the next war will be a sea-air show.

Ground warfare advocates are troubled that the debate on future wars assumes that “anti access” threats are predominantly long-range missiles and submarines, and overlooks how enemies might attempt to foil U.S. forces on the ground with automatic weapons, shoulder-fired missiles, roadside bombs — the same low-tech arms that insurgents have deployed successfully in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Army Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, director of force development, has said the Army is ready to position itself as a major player in the Pentagon’s new “joint strategy” for future conflicts, known as “prevent, shape and win.” While the air-sea battle concept focuses on Air Force and Navy systems, he noted that most of the nation’s allies in the Pacific, their dominant forces are their armies.

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