The President announced his vision for the future of the U.S. military today. Kiss big counterinsurgencies goodbye. Get ready for more shadow wars, drone attacks and online combat, with the military’s eyes on the Pacific, rather than Afghanistan.
In a rare visit to the Pentagon, President Obama declared that the U.S. will be “strengthening our presence in the Asia-Pacific,” while “turning the page on a decade of war.” In practice, that means cutting the Army and Marine Corps and unspecified “outdated Cold War systems,” part of a broad effort to cut what the Pentagon now calculates as $487 billion over 10 years from its budget.
But it also means that the U.S. is going to lean hard on other military specialties between now and 2020. Obama identified those as “intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, counterterrorism, countering weapons of mass destruction, and the ability to operate in environments where adversaries try to deny us access.”
Translated from the defense wonk: lots of spy tools including drones; lethal special operations forces; offensive cyber weapons; jammers; and a presence to deter and confront Iran — and maybe China, which seeks to keep the Navy and Air Force off its shores.
If this sounds like an updated version of a Pentagon vision from 10 years ago, maybe it should. The military will become “smaller and leaner, but will be agile, flexible, ready and technologically advanced,” according to the brand-new Pentagon document delineating the strategy shift, retaining “cutting-edge capabilities, exploiting our technological, joint and networked advantage.” Somewhere, Donald Rumsfeld is smiling.
But the document doesn’t spell out what that actually means — as in what guns, ships, trucks, planes, and troops are on the chopping block. That’s a task for next year’s defense budget, which the Pentagon is still finalizing and will release in early February. But, as Danger Room reported Wednesday, the Air Force will lose 200 planes and the Army will lose nearly 100,000 soldiers as the Pentagon trims $450 billion from its budget over 10 years. And the document released by the Pentagon vaguely alludes to cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, too.
The attack lines on Obama’s defense strategy were clear before the ink on it dried. Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called it a “retreat from the world,” marked by “massive cuts to our military.” And while the strategy is predicated on a defense budget slimmer by $487 billion over a decade, as currently scheduled, the Pentagon will lose an additional $600 billion-plus over that time starting next year unless Congress agrees on an omnibus deal to shrink the deficit. There’s a lot of time for the military to overturn that deal. But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned that those further cuts would “force us to shed missions, commitments, and capabilities necessary to protect core national security interests.”
For the past year, the Pentagon has questioned how to revamp the U.S. defense posture — not necessarily because it wanted to, but because the likelihood of budget cuts forced it to rethink how to defend the country for cheaper. Critics deride that process as backwards, with cash driving strategy, rather than strategy guiding Pentagon cash. After all, the last time the Pentagon asked itself what its priorities should be over the next several years, the first answer it provided was to “prevail in today’s wars.” (.pdf) That was February 2010.
No longer. The new strategy “transitions our Defense enterprise from an emphasis on today’s wars to preparing for future challenges,” the document pledges. Those challenges are “inextricably linked to developments in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia.”
But the Pentagon isn’t ending the Shadow Wars — the undeclared attacks on terrorist targets, led by drones and commandos, in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond. Subtly, however, it shifts their purpose. “For the foreseeable future,” the document says, the U.S. will hunt terrorists — “by monitoring the activities of non-state threats worldwide, working with allies and partners to establish control over ungoverned territories, and directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary.”
If that means anything substantive, it puts global spying ahead of missions to capture and kill terrorists. Those missions always required intelligence, but it sounds like far-reaching surveillance programs like the Air Force’s wide-area surveillance clusters like Gorgon Stare and the military’s massive spy blimps are about to grow in importance.
Nor is it the U.S. saying it’s getting out of the Middle East. It will “emphasize Gulf security” — which is to say the military’s new priority in the Mideast is to contain Iran. Doing that requires a “premium” on the “presence” of U.S. and allied forces “in and around the region.” Translation: the Air Force will keep its huge airbase at Qatar’s al-Udeid and the Navy’s Fifth Fleet will keep patrolling the Gulf.
But counterinsurgency, the focus of the U.S. Army for the last decade, is all but abolished. Officially, it’s ninth on a list of defense priorities. And even then, the strategy document envisions, at most, “limited counterinsurgency,” whatever that means, since “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.”
Even as the military tilts toward the Pacific — which means stressing the Navy and the Air Force — and on spying, jamming, and surgically striking, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned against writing the Army off. “Nowhere in this document does it say we’re never going to fight land wars,” Dempsey said.