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Obama, Panetta Announce "Leaner" Military

An Assessment Of Their Budget Cutting Plan

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Obama, Panetta Announce

President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announce budget cuts and mission realignments within U.S. military forces.

Photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo/Department of Defense
Updated January 08, 2012

United States President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced on January 5, 2012, their new strategy for trimming the U.S. defense budget by $487 billion over the next decade. The cuts are the result of both economic constraints and America's gradual retreat from a decade of warfare.

Promise Of Continued Strength

Both men promised, however, that the United States would not suffer any degradation in military capabilities because of the budget trimming.

"The United States of America is the greatest force for freedom and security that the world has ever known. And in no small measure, that's because we've built the best-trained, best-led, best-equipped military in history -- and as Commander-in-Chief, I'm going to keep it that way," Obama reassured listeners immediately upon beginning his speech.

The Budget Control Act, which Congress passed in 2011, mandated across-the-board federal budget tightening. Obama and Panetta both acknowledged that the change would have come regardless of the budget crunch given the shift in U.S. military needs. Nevertheless, Obama said he wanted to make sure defense changes address needs and not just finances.

"I called for [a] comprehensive defense review," said Obama, "to clarify our strategic interests in a fast-changing world, and to guide our defense priorities and spending over the coming decade." He said he wanted military reassessments to "be driven by a strategy, not the other way around."

Criteria For Making Cuts

Panetta said that during the defense review he insisted on following four criteria. They were:

  • The U.S., said Panetta, "must maintain the world's finest military, one that supports and sustains the unique global leadership role of the United States in today's world."
  • "We must avoid hollowing out the force," said Panetta. He explained that a smaller, well-trained, equipped, and prepared military was better than a larger one that had been "arbitrarily cut."
  • All potential cuts had to be examined, including those that carried political baggage.

Significant Changes

Panetta said that significant changes will result from the budget review. Those include:

  • The leaner force will be "more agile, more flexible, ready to deploy quickly, innovative, and technologically advanced," said Panetta. "That is the force for the future."
  • The U.S. will maintain current alliances and develop new ones; it will maintain its commitments to NATO.
  • Forces will be responsible for a variety of missions around the globe.
  • The defense department will maintain a commitment to special operations forces as well as unmanned, technologically advanced systems, such as drone aircraft.

An Assessment

Defense cuts of $48.7 billion a year for the next decade will not hurt American global military status. The U.S. outspends its nearest competitor, Russia, by $636 billion yearly. Some of the cuts will undoubtedly come from the just-ended Iraq War, Panetta indicated that the war in Afghanistan is winding down. ("It's tough, and it remains challenging, but we are beginning to enable a transition to Afghan security responsibility," Panetta said.)

In fact, Lawrence Korb, in an excellent article at Foreign Policy suggested that better management at the Pentagon, including eliminating redundancies, will probably account for much of the requisite savings.

The changes are also a logical next-step for a military that prefers to conduct as much warfare as possible by long distance. That is, let artillery, bombers, missiles, or rockets soften up positions before sending in ground troops; or letting aerial drones gather intelligence.

No Return To The "Rumsfeld Doctrine"

That said, the planned defense changes do not mean a return to the so-called "Rumsfeld Doctrine" or 2001-2006, as some observers have suggested. As George W. Bush's secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld wanted American forces to rely on small, agile, quick-strike forces of the type Panetta describes.

But notice that Panetta said he did not want a "hollowed out" force, which is exactly what Rumsfeld tried to do. Rumsfeld thought that massive bombing before a ground attack (the now-maligned "shock-and-awe" of the Iraq War) could virtually win wars alone, allowing smaller forces to clean up.

History has proven time and again, however, that bombing alone cannot win wars. Germany survived three years of bombing in World War II; it did not fall until Soviet troops took Berlin in savage urban fighting. North Vietnam (admittedly a non-industrial country with few valuable targets) sustained nearly seven years of periodic U.S. bombing with no strategic results.

No army can win a war, regardless of place or technology, without troops capturing and controlling key strategic targets. That means the Pentagon can't trade off too much manpower in favor of technology.

The Obama-Panetta trimming of the fat may be budget driven, but it does keep pace with the overall trends and lessons of U.S. military history. However, the cutting -- like most things related to U.S. foreign policy -- will be a balancing act.

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