PENTAGON: The United States will police the globe, respond to disasters and shape the international environment much as it has –though our sharpest focus will be on China and the western Pacific — but it will do all that with a significantly smaller land force than it currently has.
That was the essential message offered today by President Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey as they unveiled the administration’s new military strategy. Obama had ordered the review which led to the new strategy when he announced the more than $450 billion cuts to the defense budget.
The administration, knowing that the world would be watching for signs of retrenchment or long-term weakness, sent the clearest message it could. “Our military will be leaner, but the world must know the United States is going to maintain our military superiority,” President Obama said.
For those who may have forgotten, this strategy is the culmination of what the president called a roles and mission analysis when he called for the roughly $450 billion in defense cuts over the next decade.
“The signals here are clear. America is extricating itself from land wars in Asia and reducing its role in Europe. The new focus is on deterring Iran and China, relying mainly on air and naval power,” Loren Thompson, defense consultant and analyst at the Lexington Institute, said.
Panetta and Dempsey admitted the US would have to accept “additional but acceptable” risk as the military shrinks.
The initial reaction from Capitol Hill Republicans, was, not surprisingly, negative. “This is a lead from behind strategy for a left-behind America. 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,” said Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee.
At the core of the strategic discussion at the White House and Pentagon has been the infamous two Major Regional Contingency (MRC) strategy that has warped U.S. military budgets since the early 1990s.
While the administration did not formally renounce it, Gen. Dempsey and others have made it pretty clear it is no longer guiding U.S. policy.
“We’re keeping but not really keeping the two-war force planning construct. It is a ‘paradigm residual of the Cold War’ per General Dempsey. But he was quick to say the U.S. military can and will always be able to conduct more than one operation at a time,” Mackenzie Eaglen, former Hill staffer and now a defense analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said in an email. “Pentagon leaders are trying to thread a needle saying this is not about whether we’ll fight two adversaries at once, but how we’ll fight them.”
Thompson was somewhat less direct, but offered a similar critique. “The issue of whether we are posturing to fight one or two wars is largely definitional. You tell me what a major regional contingency is, and I’ll tell you how many we can fight for how long,” said Thompson, who is a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors.
One indicator of how carefully the administration is approaching the downsizing of the American military: “Wholesale divestment of the capability to conduct any mission would be unwise, based on historical and projected uses of U.S. military forces and our inability to predict the future,” the Defense Strategic Guidance document says.
With all the skepticism and derision aimed at the administration’s new strategy, let’s offer credit where credit is due. While many critics are ridiculing the administration’s move to drop the two MRC strategy the administration deserves credit for pretty much canning it.
It’s true that the United States –or any other state — has probably never been able to muster the forces to wage war in two theaters at once. The closest we ever came was World War II, when we deployed significant forces to both the Pacific and the Atlantic. But as any student of the war knows, the battles over resources by commanders in both theaters were epic and we made the essential decision to win in the Atlantic before we mounted our major push in the Pacific. Why? We couldn’t handle both at the same time.
As veteran Pentagon budget analyst Winslow Wheeler said in an email, the two MRC approach is “not a strategy, it’s a force and budget sizing gimmick, mostly based on computer models; the basic one was called ‘TacWar.’ How unrealistic was the two MRC strategy? “Neither Iraq (2003-2011) nor Afghanistan quality as ‘major’ in that regard; both were much smaller, and they totally crapped out our forces as regards both manpower and equipment. In other words, we were not able to even support two minor conflicts, let alone major ones,” wrote Wheeler, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors.
Wheeler made the interesting point that Panetta’s strategy and comments seem similar to earlier attempts by the military to be smaller, more capable and more lethal.
“Some very old themes in terms of smaller ground forces and more high tech responses to threats; very much like Rumsfeld’s “transformation” and Andy Marshall’s “Revolution in Military Affairs.” Note that these exercises did not result in much success in Iraq and Afghanistan and required substantial augmentation from — ground forces,” Wheeler said.
In terms of likely winners and losers in the Feb. 6 Pentagon budget, President Obama told the nation that we will “invest” in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, counterterror, weapons of mass destruction and “operating in anti-access environments,” which is code for containing and countering China.
“What I heard was ground (occupation) forces, European basing, non-retirement personnel benefits, and the F-35 as all losers,” Wheeler said. “ISR, special forces, counter terrorism, anti-weapons of mass destruction programs, cyber warfare, science & technology are all declared winners. Watch as bureaucrats in the Pentagon and porkers in Congress attempt to redefine their favorite programs as fitting into one, or more, of those categories.”
Obama also offered a nod to so-called soft power, saying that “meeting the challenges of our time” cannot be done by the military alone and needs the help of other government departments and our allies. Panetta echoed his comments.
What does this strategy really mean? Wheeler, an accomplished observer of both politicians and bureaucrats, put it this way: “Press conference words are nice; actual budgets are the ultimate expression of policy and strategy.”