Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta on Thursday presented the first act in shrinking the war-on-terrorism military over the next five years, saying his 2013 budget will cut land forces by 92,000, ask Congress to close bases and slow production of the F-35 stealth fighter.
The Obama administration is trimming the armed forces’ size to near pre-Sept. 11, 2001, levels, banking on a military strategy that puts more emphasis on precision, not just brute force.
The recently released strategy plays down the chances of a large, protracted ground war and puts added faith in drones, airstrikes and special warfare commandos, such as the Navy SEALS who killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
“We are in a strategic turning point after a decade of war,” said Mr. Panetta, who this month released a strategy that pulls forces from Europe and focuses on the Persian Gulf and the western Pacific, where China is a rising power and North Korea remains an adversary.
“The military will be smaller and leaner, but it will be agile, flexible, rapidly deployable and technologically advanced,” he said, pledging to avoid the “hollow” force of past postwar drawdowns.
The defense chief made clear that the downsizing is not driven just by ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bipartisan Budget Control Act, designed to stem a growing federal debt, requires $487 billion in cuts over 10 years, $259 billion of which will come in 2013 to 2017.
The 2013 base budget, minus war costs, is proposed at $525 billion, $6 billion less than approved by Congress for this year. After a decade of big budget increases, the plan marks the first decrease since the 1990s post-Cold War era. The Pentagon had planned on asking for $571 billion for 2013.
In addition to the base budget, war spending overseas, primarily for Afghanistan, is set at $88 billion, down from $115 billion this year.
Mr. Panetta is not canceling any major weapons forces to pay for the cuts. Instead, the deepest slashing hits Army and Marine Corps ground forces, taking them back to near-2001 levels.
The Army, over five years, will shrink from 562,000 soldiers to 490,000, and the Marine Corps from 202,000 to 182,000 troops.
Mr. Panetta has been criticized, especially by congressional Republicans, for issuing a strategy that dumps a decades-old capability that the military fight and win two land wars at the same time.
The new strategy states that the active force can fight a land war for a limited time before a large mobilization is needed. It says it would impose great costs on a second adversary, presumedly airstrikes, to blunt an invasion.
Mr. Panetta addressed the criticism yesterday when he declared: “What that means for the services is that we will have an adaptable and battle-tested Army that is our nation’s force for decisive action, capable of defeating any adversary on land.
“Let me say that again - capable of defeating any adversary on land.”
But he conceded that “it will be a smaller force, and when you have a smaller force, there are risks associated with that in terms of our capability to respond.”
Said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “Capability is more important than size.”
Mr. Panetta said he is maintaining the 11 active aircraft carriers.
However, the Navy plans to have just 10 operational carriers for nearly three years when the USS Enterprise is retired and the next carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, remains under construction until 2015.
Some analysts say the Navy may well find out during the gap that it can get along with 10 carriers and save billions of dollars.
It is not clear how the Navy will expand from its current 285 ships to its target of 313 as it deals with essentially flat budgets.
Mr. Panetta also announced that the Navy will retire some guided-missile cruisers because they are not equipped with the latest defense systems.
What has been planned as the advanced workhorse fighter of the next generation - the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter - survived the budget despite its technology failures and huge cost overruns.
The Pentagon will reduce its yearly buys of the aircraft, which lowers the budget by spreading out payments over a longer period. The goal remains to buy 2,443 F-35s, but the total cost of $382 billion may further increase because the production run is being stretched.
Much is at stake for the F-35 to achieve performance goals. It is to replace an entire inventory of tactical fighters: the Air Force’s F-16, the Navy’s F-18 and the Marine Corps’ Harrier “jump jet.”
On the strategic front, the Navy will delay by two years development of a new submarine that carries ballistic nuclear weapons as a deterrent to a first strike. The Air Force’s bomber fleet of B-1s, stealth B-2s and the venerable B-52 is being left untouched.
Mr. Panetta will ask Congress to authorize another round of base closings. Past base-by-base decisions have been handed to a special commission, whose recommendations can be either accepted or rejected in full by Congress.
“We simply cannot sustain infrastructure beyond our needs,” he said.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon said the budget cuts too many soldiers and Marines.
“To achieve these reductions, the president has abandoned the defense structure that has protected America for two generations,” the California Republican said.
“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.”
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