Bloomberg News

Obama Defense Plan Presented as Diagnosis Without Prescription

January 11, 2012

Jan. 6 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama unveiled a new military strategy to reduce defense spending while shifting the U.S. focus from Iraq and Afghanistan toward the Pacific and addressing evolving challenges from China and Iran.

The revamped plan, which lacked details and echoed previous vows to build a leaner military, was driven by the need to cut almost $490 billion from projected Pentagon spending through 2021, including about $261 billion through 2017. Still, the president said yesterday at the Pentagon that the U.S. would retain global military superiority, step up investment in cyber security and space programs, and continue to attack what remains of al-Qaeda.

The Pentagon’s strategy, which lists 10 primary military missions ranging from counter-terrorism to humanitarian and disaster relief assistance and projecting U.S. power in contested areas of the world, is an “historic shift to the future,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a news conference.

Asked for details on how the Defense Department may go about meeting the goals, Panetta said those plans won’t be released until the Pentagon presents its 2013 budget request to Congress by early February.

The absence of details is like getting the “diagnosis right, but it’s not sure what the prescription is or if they’ve the resources to fill the prescription,” Andrew Krepinevich, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, said in a telephone interview. “This is strategy on an installment.”

Lacking Specifics

The lack of specifics is partly because of the strategy’s multiple objectives, said a senior Pentagon official, who spoke without authorization on condition of anonymity. In addition to ending lengthy, costly and personnel-intensive nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the goals include ensuring that the U.S. remains as dominant in space and cyberspace as it has been on land, sea and air, the official said.

The strategy also is intended to counter Republican election-year criticism that Obama is soft on defense, the official said. Republican lawmakers were quick to criticize the new strategy. Representative Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Obama has packaged “a retreat from the world.”

“An honest and valid strategy for national defense can’t be founded on the premise that we must do more with less, or even less with less,” he said in an e-mailed statement.

‘Real Buy-in’

Still, Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the news conference with Panetta that the strategy has “real buy-in” from senior military officers.

“This is not the strategy of a military in decline,” he said. “This is a strategy and a joint force on which the nation can depend.”

Faced with fewer resources, the Pentagon’s review, titled “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” signals a departure from previous war-planning assumptions that called for preparing to fight two conventional wars simultaneously.

Instead, the Pentagon plans to organize U.S. forces to “fully deny a capable state’s aggressive objectives in one region by conducting” a full-scale war across all domains, while being capable of “denying the objectives” of an “opportunistic aggressor in a second region.”

Planning for two simultaneous wars on land, sea, air and in space and cyberspace was always expensive and often left the Pentagon short of equipment such as tankers and combat support, retired Marine Corps General James Cartwright said in an interview. Still, he said, “We advertised we could conduct the two-war strategy, albeit with certain caveats” and in “limited circumstances.”

Iran, North Korea

The new strategy must be careful not to convey that the U.S. is “overly vulnerable during one conflict to the potential of having to execute a second near-simultaneous conflict,” said Cartwright, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

If there’s a confrontation with Iran, “What about North Korea?” said William Cohen, a former defense secretary and chairman of the Cohen Group, on Bloomberg Television’s “InBusiness With Margaret Brennan.” “What do our allies in the region think about that particular strategy?”

With U.S. troops now out of Iraq and a drawdown in Afghanistan scheduled to be complete by the end of 2014, “we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region,” the Pentagon document said.

India Partnership

The U.S. will expand cooperation in the region and strengthen existing alliances, as well as invest “in a long- term strategic partnership with India,” so the South Asian nation may serve as a regional economic anchor, the Pentagon said.

The document did not say how the administration would strengthen its ties to New Delhi while improving its shaky relationship with Pakistan, an important, nuclear-armed front in the war against terrorism that regards India as a mortal enemy.

With countries such as China developing missiles, cyber technologies, and sea mines to deter U.S. forces from entering their nearby waters -- so-called anti-access and area-denial strategies -- the Pentagon will develop a new stealth bomber, undersea capabilities, space technologies and missile defenses, the strategy said.

In the absence of details, it’s not clear how the development of a stealth bomber can counter the anti-access strategies being pursued by China and other countries, said retired Admiral Dennis Blair, a former U.S. Director of National Intelligence.

Chinese Subs

The main threat to U.S. naval forces in the Pacific come from Chinese submarines and missiles, and the “role of a stealth bomber in the contingencies in East Asia needs further explanation to make a compelling case,” said Blair, who also served as commander of the U.S. Pacific Command from 1999 to 2002.

The U.S. shift toward the Asia-Pacific region won’t come at the cost of cooperation with European allies and NATO responsibilities, Panetta said. Still, new strategic priorities will mean the U.S. military posture in Europe will “continue to adapt and evolve,” he said.

That evolution will include cutting to two from four the number of Army combat brigades stationed in Europe, U.K. Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said in an interview.

The move, which will leave between 6,000 and 10,000 fewer American troops in position to deploy quickly to the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere, is “not going to be welcomed by European allies in the alliance,” Hammond said.

‘Mature’ Response

“Europe needs to respond in a mature way, not in a histrionic way,” to such changes, he said. European nations need to work with the U.S. and make the case “for continuing the Atlantic alliance, even while recognizing that some of the new strategic challenges are elsewhere in the world.”

In pivoting toward Asia, where air and naval equipment are more apt to dominate military planning, the Pentagon must be cautious not to forget the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, Blair said.

The counter-terrorism mission, one of the 10 listed in the Pentagon’s strategy, is best carried out by helping other countries police their borders, through training and capability building, Blair said.

Unlike military units that carry out specific tasks such as anti-submarine warfare, the Pentagon has not designated an office to assist other nations on counter-terrorism capabilities, Blair said.

“Given its druthers, the Pentagon traditionally would give priority to classic force-on-force warfare and give short shrift” to other kinds of missions, and then be surprised when forced to conduct counter-terrorism operations, Blair said.

--With assistance from Viola Gienger, Roxana Tiron, Tony Capaccio and John Walcott in Washington. Editors: John Walcott, Terry Atlas

To contact the reporter on this story: Gopal Ratnam in Washington at gratnam1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net


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