Politico by CHARLES HOSKINSON | 1/26/12 12:01 PM EST Updated: 1/26/12 10:39 PM EST
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday laid out plans to shrink all four of the military services to meet the Pentagon’s required contribution to reducing the national debt, while insisting that the nation’s armed forces would still remain the world’s best.
The new cuts, which immediately drew Republican criticism in this election year, were designed by Pentagon planners to be in line with President Barack Obama’s strategy for a smaller — but tech-savvy and more mobile — force that could still confront terrorists around the world, maintain a presence in the Middle East, deter the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea and counter a rising China in the western Pacific.
“This has been tough work. And at the same time, we have viewed it as an opportunity to shape the force for the future,” said Panetta, who along with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, unveiled details of the new spending plan at a Pentagon news conference.” The leaders of this department, both military and civilian, we are united behind the strategy we have presented.”
The Army would drop from 565,000 troops to 490,000, and the Marines from 202,000 to 182,000. The Navy’s fleet — already its smallest since before World War I — would shrink to about 250 ships from 285. And the Air Force would lose six fighter squadrons and 130 transport aircraft.
The proposal also calls for a new round of base closings, slower increases in military pay after 2014, higher health care fees for retirees and a commission to study changes in military retirement.
All this is designed to save $259 billion over the next five years — the first installment of the $487 billion reduction in planned spending over 10 years required by the debt-reduction law enacted last year. The plan is expected to be included in the budget Obama sends to Congress next month.
The proposal also calls for continued investment in special operations forces and unmanned aerial vehicles, and a boost in funding for cyber warfare. “We are depending a great deal on being on the technological edge of the future,” Panetta said.
In all, the Pentagon is asking for $525 billion next year, about $6 billion less than the $531.2 billion in the current budget. But the proposal projects that spending would grow to $567 billion by 2017, in spite of the mandated reductions.
Not included in that figure is war spending, which also is expected to shrink now that the Iraq war is over and U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is winding down, or the extra $500 billion in cuts mandated by the failure of the debt-reduction supercommittee.
Panetta referred to the threat of the additional cuts as he urged lawmakers to come together to defuse it by finding other ways of reducing the debt.
“This will be a test of whether reducing the deficit is about talk or about action,” he said. “My hope is that when members understand the sacrifice involved in reducing the defense budget by half a trillion dollars, it will convince Congress to avoid sequestration, a doubling of the cuts that would inflict severe damage to our national defense for generations.”
Still, release of the budget details is likely to give the administration’s Republican critics at least some of the ammunition they need to back up their claim that Obama is dangerously weakening national security — a charge that so far hasn’t stuck. But it also gives Democrats time to marshal a counterattack before the fiscal 2013 budget goes to Congress on Feb. 13.
“As the Department of Defense begins to release its budget for [fiscal year] 2013, it is also important to understand that the top-line budget numbers are based on the Budget Control Act, which was passed by Congress with support from both parties. Congress — specifically the Budget Committee — sets the top-line numbers and the administration must act within those confines,” said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
Smith was one of several lawmakers briefed on the plan at a dinner Wednesday night by Panetta, Dempsey and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
Also at the dinner was Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who said GOP opponents of the new spending plan would have to deal with the fact that uniformed military leaders played a key role in shaping it. “They were deeply involved in this budget request, and they support this budget request,” he said.
In a letter to Smith dated Wednesday, all seven members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Coast Guard commandant and their senior enlisted advisers express their support for the changes to pay and benefits in the plan, saying it “identifies responsible reductions in defense spending.”
Nonetheless, Republicans intend to keep reminding voters of the risks of Obama’s strategy in a dangerous world where events can quickly turn against the United States — risks Panetta and Dempsey acknowledged in their presentation.
Though U.S. troops have withdrawn from Iraq, the country’s political environment remains in turmoil. In Afghanistan, the administration is betting heavily on successful peace talks with the Taliban and the ability of Afghan government forces to take over by 2014 — developments many observers see as doubtful. Iran’s nuclear program continues despite toughened sanctions, raising the specter of an Israeli strike that could inflame the entire Persian Gulf. And Al Qaeda, though weakened, is still trying to attack the United States.
Reacting quickly, Republican lawmakers sought to paint the proposed spending plan as one that ignores painful experiences with past moves to shrink the military.
“This move ignores a critical lesson in recent history: that while high technology and elite forces give America an edge, they cannot substitute for overwhelming ground forces when we are faced with unforeseen battlefields,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.).
“The defense budget that the Obama administration will propose ignores the lessons of history that we have learned time and again by imposing massive cuts to our force structure and the size of the Army and Marine Corps over the next five years,” added Arizona Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“While I recognize that the Defense Department must play a responsible role in overcoming the debt and spending crisis we face, I am deeply concerned that the size and scope of these cuts would repeat the mistakes of history and leave our forces too small to respond effectively to events that may unfold over the next few years,” McCain said.
McKeon said he’s also concerned about the president’s overall view of the threats faced by the United States, especially when it comes to nuclear weapons, where Obama has argued for drastic reductions in the U.S. arsenal with an eye toward eliminating it.
“It’s like we live in a peaceful world in his mind,” McKeon said.