President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey released an unclassified version of the defense strategic guidance Jan. 5 at a Pentagon press conference. The document, entitled “Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense” (PDF), calls for $487 billion in proposed defense budget cuts over the next 10 years, amounting to some 8% of the Pentagon’s base budget. The defense budget planned for next year is $662 billion, $43 billion less than this year. If automatic “sequestration” cuts mandated by last year’s budget deal take effect, the Pentagon could lose some $500 billion more. “The US joint force will be smaller and it will be leaner,” Panetta said. “The Army and Marine Corps will no longer need to be sized to support the kind of large-scale, long-term stability operations that dominated military priorities…over the past decade.” The army is slated to cut back to 520,000 active duty troops from 565,000 after 2014. The Marine Corps, which has swelled to 202,000, plans to drop to 186,000. This will place US troop strength essentially at the pre-9-11 level. US troop strength grew by some 100,000 after the attacks, and now stands at 1.4 million.
Shift to Asia-Pacific theater
Amid the cuts, there is one region is slated to see more US forces. At the press conference, Obama invoked his November pledge at Canberra: “As I made clear in Australia, we will be strengthening our presence in the Asia-Pacific, and budget reductions will not come at the expense of that critical region.”
Invoking terrorism and unrest in the Middle East, the document states that “the United States will continue to take an active approach to countering these threats,” but states in the next paragraph, “we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.” It explicitly recognizes China as a new rival:
Over the long term, China’s emergence as a regional power will have the potential to affect the U.S. economy and our security in a variety of ways. Our two countries have a strong stake in peace and stability in East Asia and an interest in building a cooperative bilateral relationship. However, the growth of China’s military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region. The United States will continue to make the necessary investments to ensure that we maintain regional access and the ability to operate freely in keeping with our treaty obligations and with international law… Working closely with our network of allies and partners, we will continue to promote a rules-based international order that ensures underlying stability and encourages the peaceful rise of new powers, economic dynamism, and constructive defense cooperation.
The document foresees a shift of emphasis from ground forces to air and naval power, especially citing the need to ensure “the free flow of commerce.” China currently has 2.3 million men and women under arms; North Korea has 1.1 million.
Retreat from “two-war doctrine”?
The new strategy ostensibly abandons the Pentagon’s “two-war doctrine,” under which the US is to have the capability to wage two wars simultaneously. But the distinction seems a narrow one. Under the new doctrine, the military would be “capable of denying the objectives of—or imposing unacceptable costs on—an opportunistic aggressor in a second region.”
The document also broaches tentative steps towards Obama’s 2009 Prague pledge to reduce the US nuclear arsenal. It states: “It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force,” while also assuring that “the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal.” The new strategy also suggests reducing the US military presence in Europe, where about 43,000 service members are stationed, mostly in Germany.
In constant dollars, the cuts will only take the Pentagon budget back to 2007 levels. At the press conference, Obama pointed out the US military budget will still “be larger than roughly the next 10 countries combined.” (Tampa Bay Times, Jan. 7; AFP, The Atlantic, Jan. 6; BBC News, BBC News, AP, DoD press release, Jan. 5; NYT, Nov. 22, 2011)