After 10 years of unprecedented military spending to finance wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, President Barack Obama unveiled a revamped U.S. military strategy that will transform the military into a leaner force capable of taking on the emerging challenge of China in the Pacific region.
“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,” Mr. Obama said in a Pentagon news conference.
The new strategy offers the broad outlines that will guide the U.S. Defence Department as it adjusts to the reality of being the world’s most powerful military in an age of austerity.
Details of defence budget cuts will start to emerge in February when Mr. Obama unveils his broader federal budget proposal for 2013, but estimates of the extent of defence spending cuts over the next decade range from at least $450-billion (U.S.) to as much as $1-trillion (U.S.).
With more than 550,000 active duty soldiers, the army is already facing cuts of 27,000 personnel beginning in 2015. In the Pentagon’s strategy document – and the desire to move beyond the Afghanistan and Iraq war model – the army will likely see even deeper cuts. “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,” Mr. Obama said. Like the army, the 200,000 marines are facing cuts beginning in 2015 when up to 20,000 personnel will lose their jobs. Under the Pentagon’s new strategy, the marines will continue to play an important role. But the growth of the marines over the past 10 years to help fight overseas wars means they will likely see deeper cuts – perhaps in the range of 10 per cent to 15 per cent – as the Pentagon moves away from a military weighted to a “boots on the ground” strategy.
F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
The air force will be a key part of a leaner 21st-century global military power. But all signs indicate that U.S. Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta will delay purchases of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The program is one of the most expensive purchases in U.S. military history: 2,400 aircraft at the cost of $382-billion; Canada has committed to purchase 65. Problems with the strike fighter were first reported in the autumn. Ottawa, however, has refused calls by the opposition to step away from its F-35 commitment.
Increasingly, the U.S. is concerned about cyber warfare and the threat of electronic attacks. To that end, the Pentagon strategy makes cyber security a priority in the review document. The power to disrupt national security systems and steal military secrets is of great concern. But the flip side is the knowledge and sophistication to wage cyber attacks against one’s enemies.
There have been some leaks of Mr. Panetta’s proposed cuts. The 11 U.S. aircraft carriers are not on the list, according to The New York Times. This would fit in to the broader Pacific focus outlined in the Pentagon review document. The U.S. will also continue to make counterterrorism a priority, and the role of special operations forces will be protected. U.S. Marines special forces played an instrumental role in the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. They will likely continue to play a key role in dismantling al-Qaeda. Broadly speaking, military programs related to intelligence-gathering, monitoring terrorist groups and the use of drone technology will likely be protected.
The two-war doctrine
U.S. military strategy up until now has been based on the ability to fight two wars simultaneously, if necessary. The Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts demonstrated the strains on the U.S. military. The U.S. military is abandoning its ability to fight two wars simultaneously in the future in place of a new strategy. “Even when U.S. forces are committed to a large-scale operation in one region, they will be capable of denying the objectives of – or imposing unacceptable costs on – an opportunistic aggressor in a second region,” the review states. In other words, if engaged in a conflict, the U.S. will aim to maintain the ability to “spoil” the capability of an aggressor on another front.
Last August, the Pentagon warned that China was on course to build a modern military by 2020, and in a year when the Chinese military tested a stealth aircraft and conducted trials of a new aircraft carrier, the Pentagon’s concern was unmistakable. The U.S. fears that China will use its increasing naval might to settle territorial disputes with neighbours such as Vietnam and the Philippines. And Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent message to its navy – “make extended preparations for warfare” – will no doubt make U.S. allies nervous. The size of the U.S. military and the scale of defence spending will continue to dwarf China’s military growth for years to come. But there will come a point when – theoretically – China can surpass the Unites States in defence spending. If China continues its incredible economic growth, matched by consecutive double-digit military-spending increases, it could surpass the U.S. in defence spending by 2025, according to calculations by The Economist magazine.
The shift in strategy to the Pacific region will have consequences for the number of bases, personnel and military assets. “We’ll be strengthening our presence in the Asia-Pacific, and budget reductions will not come at the expense of this critical region,” Mr. Obama said. That message was sent more than a month ago during a visit to Australia when he announced the deployment of 2,500 military personnel to boost security in the Pacific region. The entire Pacific focus in the new Pentagon strategy review will be seen by China as a threat.
There are just over 80,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in Europe. While the new strategy makes the Pacific and Middle East a focus, Europe is where the U.S. will likely reduce the most number of troops. Here, the U.S. has to be careful: The recent NATO campaign in Libya relied on U.S. involvement. If NATO is asked to undertake a similar campaign in the future, would the U.S. be able to contribute in a significant way? The U.S. is keen to reassure its European allies. As Mr. Obama said on Wednesday, the U.S. military “will have a global presence emphasizing the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East while still ensuring our ability to maintain our defence commitments to Europe and strengthening alliances and partnerships across all regions.”