The President and Pentagon leaders on Thursday sketched broad outlines for how they plan to cut Defense spending without seriously reducing military capability, while deferring most questions about specifics until the release of the President’s budget next month.
The cuts, mandated by deficit reduction legislation, will result in a military that is leaner, more agile and more focused, but that also is willing to accept acceptable levels of risk as the result of reduced capabilities in some areas, officials said. However, for anyone who was expecting to hear specifically what’s in and what’s out of the Pentagon budget, Thursday’s briefing was largely a disappointment. Rather, the Pentagon news conference attended by the President and the top uniformed and civilian military leadership was convened to release the strategic guidance “that is intended to guide spending decisions over the next several years as DoD cuts back several hundred billion dollars from its previously planned budget growth.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey
Question and answer session with reporters
Leaner, more agile military
President Obama said achieving a leaner, more agile military would mean cancelling unnecessary weapons systems, scaling back on roles and missions that are lower on the priority list and refocusing on future threats after 10 years of war.
“As we look beyond the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the end of long-term nation-building with large military footprints, we’ll be able to ensure our security with smaller conventional ground forces,” Obama said. “We’ll continue to get rid of outdated Cold War-era systems so that we can invest in the capabilities that we need for the future, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, counterterrorism, countering weapons of mass destruction and the ability to operate in environments where adversaries try to deny us access. So yes, our military will be leaner, but the world must know the United States is going to maintain our military superiority with armed forces that are agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats.”
The strategy is the outcome of months of high-level deliberations that began in earnest when Congress passed the Budget Control Act to resolve the summer debt ceiling debate, forcing DoD to cut at least $487 billion from planned spending over 10 years.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the review as a collaborative process in which DoD officials considered everything.
“We sought out and took insights from within and from outside the Department of Defense, to include from the intelligence community and other governmental departments,” Dempsey said. “We weighed facts and assessments. We challenged every assumption. We considered a wide range of recommendations and counter-arguments. I can assure you that the steps we have taken to arrive at this strategy involved all of this and much more.”
Most questions about specific decisions that were reached in those deliberations were deferred until the President’s budget announcement next month. But the Pentagon briefing and the eight page strategic guidance document that accompanied it was at least as much about what the Pentagon wants to avoid as about what it wants to achieve: there are some specific areas in which DoD is unwilling to make cuts, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said.
“As we reduce the overall defense budget, we will protect, and in some cases increase, our investments in special operations forces, in new technologies like (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), and unmanned systems, in space — and, in particular, in cyberspace — capabilities, and also our capacity to quickly mobilize if necessary,” he said. “These investments will help the military retain and continue to refine and institutionalize the expertise and capabilities that have been gained at such great cost over the last decade.”
Different type of drawdown
The strategy document doesn’t suggest that the Pentagon is willing to give up on any particular roles or missions. Indeed, it says completely abandoning the ability to conduct any of the missions the military is ready for right now would be “unwise.” And President Obama said he and the Pentagon are determined not to repeat what they view as the mistakes of past Defense drawdowns after World War II and Vietnam.
“Our military was left ill-prepared for the future. As commander in chief, I will not let that happen again, not on my watch,” Obama said.
Ashton Carter, the deputy secretary of Defense, insisted the Pentagon’s new strategy would make this drawdown different.
“It’s different in two respects,” he said. “The first is that we’re being careful to preserve the know-how and some of the specialized capabilities that have proven so useful and that we have learned so much about over the last 10 years. We are not retaining the large force structure necessary to sustain long, large-scale stability operations. And that doesn’t mean that we can’t regenerate them if we need them in time to conduct such operations if in the future that becomes necessary. It’s about forces in being, and we do not need to keep forces in being of that kind on the scale in which we’ve used them over the last two decades. So we’re doing to keep the trade craft, and we’re going to keep the option to reconstitute, but we’re not going to keep the large force structure in being.” Carter said the Pentagon would maintain its ability to reconstitute those Army and Marine end strengths by retaining a large, capable cadre of mid-grade officers and non-commissioned officers to achieve what DoD is calling “reversibility” to its land force cuts.
Carter said the same general concept applies to the Defense Industrial Base.
“As we make program changes, we want to make sure that 10 years, 15 years from now, we still have an industrial base that supports our key weapon systems even if we’re not able to buy in those areas at the rates or in the volume that we had planned before we were handed this $487 billion cut,” he said. “Another example is science and technology and innovation, because that’s the seed corn of the future. We want to make sure we don’t eat the seed corn. Reversibility is the concept that we’ve used to remind ourselves that we want to act in such a way that we, to the extent we can with a $487 million cut, preserve options for the future.”
DoD leaders also repeated their frequent refrain that while the current level of cost-cutting is manageable, another round of cuts triggered by the Budget Control Act’s sequestration mechanism would result in a hollowed out military.
Carter said that would become apparent to lawmakers when they see the details of the budget the Pentagon will submit in early February.
“When members of Congress, when you, when citizens see the magnitude of that task that we’ve had to undertake to meet the $487 billion target, you’ll understand why we give the harsh warnings we do about sequestration,” he said. “We’re going very, very far with $489 billion. As the secretary said, we’re looking at things that we haven’t had to look at in this department for a decade. He’s made us put everything on the table and undergo a very thorough process. … We’ve undergone the strategy exercise first, so we wouldn’t make our budget changes without having a strategy behind them, the strategic insight behind them.”
“Everything on the table,” Panetta said, includes the thorny issue of pay and benefits. He indicated that he does intend to find savings in personnel costs. But as with most other questions about specifics of the strategy, the answer was to wait until next month’s budget release.
“We want to maintain the quality of benefits that flow to our troops and to their families,” he said. “That’s a key red line for us. We’re going to maintain those, but at the same time, we have a responsibility to control costs in those areas as well. And that’s part of what we will present as part of our budget.”
On Capitol Hill, reaction to the strategy was largely split along party lines.
“Today’s announcement follows a strategic review of defense policy and aims to strengthen our Armed Forces’ ability to address the challenges of a changing global security environment,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House Democratic Whip. “In line with this new strategy, the defense budget will adapt to ensure that our military has all the resources it needs to support the changing mission, while at the same time contributing to comprehensive deficit reduction. Our deficits themselves represent a national security threat that must be addressed, further reason why it is important to achieve a big and balanced solution this year. This new strategy recognizes that our military continues to be the greatest in the world and a source of pride for all Americans.”
Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, asserted that the strategy was founded on “hope and a hollow force.” “This is a lead from behind strategy for a left-behind America,” McKeon said in a statement. “The President has packaged our retreat from the world in the guise of a new strategy to mask his divestment of our military and national defense. This strategy ensures American decline in exchange for more failed domestic programs. In order to justify massive cuts to our military, he has revoked the guarantee that America will support our allies, defend our interests and defy our opponents.”
Perhaps anticipating charges of hollowing out the military, President Obama offered a pre-emptive defense of the capabilities the military would retain after the strategy’s implementation.
“I think it’s important for all Americans to remember, over the past 10 years since 9/11, our Defense budget grew at an extraordinary pace,” Obama said. “Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: It will still grow, because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership. In fact, the Defense budget will still be larger than it was toward the end of the Bush administration. And I firmly believe, and I think the American people understand, that we can keep our military strong and our nation secure with a defense budget that continues to be larger than roughly the next 10 countries combined.”