National Security Network

NSN Daily Update: 21st-Century Strategy, with Budget to Match

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Report 5 January 2012

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Today, President Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey will roll out the results of a nine-month strategy review, aimed at modernizing U.S. military strategy to reflect a strategic pivot toward Asia, the end of a decade of 9/11-inspired invasions and occupations, and a tight fiscal environment. The spending shifts and reductions to be announced with the new budget will be focused on creating a flexible, effective 21st-century military - reflecting strategic changes and moving away from outdated systems and priorities. The shifts are more modest than heated rhetoric about "cuts" would imply:  the headline changes have all been under discussion in the Pentagon for years, if not decades, and the Pentagon budget will still grow over the next five years.

The plan to be announced today creates a framework for strategy-based reductions. The plan announced today is the result of a process begun under former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Republican. As Reuters reports, "The review was initiated by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates after President Barack Obama asked defense officials to cut some $400 billion in planned spending over 12 years without jeopardizing the country's strategic interests." Gates explained the process last May, saying, "The new comprehensive review will ensure that future spending decisions are focused on strategy and risks, and are not simply a math and accounting exercise... The overarching goal will be to preserve a US military capable of meeting crucial national security priorities, even if fiscal pressure requires reductions in the force's size." [Reuters, 1/4/12. Robert Gates via CS Monitor, 5/20/11]

Early reports indicate that the plan will call for spending shifts and smart reductions that would create a flexible, effective 21st-century force. As the AP reports, "The aim [of the review] was twofold: Streamline the military in an era of tighter budgets and reassess defense priorities in light of China's rise and other global changes." Specific cuts won't be known until the administration releases its proposed budget early next month, but the outlines are clear. Reuters reports, "The spending reductions, while not yet set in stone, are expected to trim the number of military and civilian defense personnel, delay or cut back on some high-profile weapons systems like the radar-evading F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and take steps to control spiraling health-care costs." AP further reports that the U.S nuclear weapons complex is also being considered for reductions: "Looming large over the defense budget debate is the prospect of reducing spending on nuclear weapons. Thomas Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association, believes the U.S. nuclear program can cut $45 billion over the coming decade without weakening the force. He estimates that reducing the U.S. strategic nuclear submarine force from 12 subs to eight could save $27 billion over 10 years. A further $18 billion could be saved by delaying the building of a new fleet of nuclear-capable bomber aircraft, he says." [AP, 1/5/11. Reuters, 1/3/12]

The proposed build-down is modest, has broad support; even largest reductions would bring budget back only to 2007 level. As the New York Times reports, "There is broad agreement on the left, right and center that $450 billion in cuts over a decade - the amount that the White House and Pentagon agreed to last summer - is acceptable." Cuts could go even further without jeopardizing national security. As the New York Times reports, even hypothetical cuts at the level foreseen under sequestration would not be disastrous: "Even after the winding down of the wars and the potential $1 trillion in cuts over the next decade, the Pentagon's annual budget, now $530 billion, would shrink to $472 billion in 2013, or about the size of the budget in 2007." Gordon Adams of the Stimson Center notes, "Even at a trillion dollars, this is a shallower build-down than any of the last three we've done... It would still be the world's most dominant military. We would be in an arms race with ourselves." [NY Times, 1/2/12. Gordon Adams via the NY Times, 1/2/12]

Shift away from future "Iraqs and Afghanistans" and toward the reality of a "win-hold" strategy reflects lessons learned. Last year, then-Secretary Robert Gates noted bluntly that the decade of military occupations was over. "In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it," Gates said. Combined with a new focus on Asia and its maritime challenges, this lesson has led the Pentagon to cut back plans for troop levels. Formal U.S. doctrine has long required that the U.S. be able to fight and win two regional wars simultaneously, but the Pentagon has quietly moved away from this in practice. As the New York Times reported three years ago. "Among the refinements to the two-wars strategy the Pentagon has incorporated in recent years is one known as ‘win-hold-win' - an assumption that if two wars broke out simultaneously, the more threatening conflict would get the bulk of American forces while the military would have to defend along a second front until reinforcements could arrive to finish the job."

Iraq and Afghanistan forcibly taught the lesson that the two-war strategy did not hold, as the New York Times notes:  "The Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, the former commander in Iraq, points out that the Army had 480,000 people in uniform before the Sept. 11 attacks, and at that number was supposed to be able to fight two wars at once. But the Army proved to be too small to sustain the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and was increased to its current size of 570,000. The Army is now set to drop to 520,000 soldiers, beginning in 2015, although few expect that to be the floor. The reality is that the United States may not be able to afford waging two wars at once." Reuters reports: "allowing U.S. forces to fight one campaign and stop or block another conflict, includes a recognition that the White House would need to ramp up public support for further engagement and draw more heavily on reserve and national guard troops when required." As NSN Executive Director Heather Hurlburt writes, "On the strategic level, the much-ballyhooed move away from maintaining the ability to fight and win two regional wars simultaneously is less than meets the eye: the change has been discussed since the Cold War ended, and even as we fought two wars to something less than ‘wins' in Iraq and Afghanistan, military strategists have quietly moved toward a ‘win-hold-win' model where we have enough forces to, for example, respond to a North Korean attack while keeping the Taliban out of Kabul until Pyongyang was vanquished, and we could resume the mission in Afghanistan." [Robert Gates via the NY Times, 2/25/11. Reuters, 1/4/12. NY Times, 1/2/12. Heather Hurlburt, 1/5/12]

What We're Reading

European countries have agreed in principle to impose an embargo on Iranian oil.

A suicide bomber targeting Shiite pilgrims in southern Iraq killed 30 people, hours after a wave of bombings hit Shiite areas in Baghdad and killed 27 others.

The chief prosecutor in the Hosni Mubarak trial said he holds the ousted leader "politically and legally" responsible for the killing of protesters during the 18-day uprising that toppled his regime.

Arab League monitors made "mistakes" during their fact-finding mission in Syria, Qatar's foreign minister said.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was indicted for seeking bribes in three controversial real estate projects, among them the highly-disputed Holyland housing project in Jerusalem.

In forming an approach for dealing with North Korea's new leader, the U.S. will stick close to South Korea, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia said.

Burma's government approved the National League for Democracy to run in upcoming by-elections that will return Aung San Suu Kyi's party to mainstream politics after two decades.

German President Christian Wulff's nationally televised apology for his handling of a public debate over his private business dealings won him some political backing, but has failed to calm a media uprising that has seen commentators from nearly every German newspaper calling on him to resign.

At least 26 people have been killed in attacks by a Rwandan militia group in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

A landslide in a remote area of the southern Philippines has left 25 people dead and more than 100 missing.

Commentary of the Day

Fareed Zakaria argues that Iran is weak and getting weaker.

The New York Times Editorial Board explores the possibility of talks with the Taliban.

Christopher Walker and Sarah Cook explain how China's social media sites are carefully monitored to seem open and lively while still silencing dissent.