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‘Leaner, Agile, and More Flexible': Are Obama and Panetta Setting Out to Create the Military that Donald Rumsfeld Always Wanted?

President Obama, Secretary of Defense Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Dempsey gave a brief press conference this morning on America’s new defense strategy, crafted in the face of massive national debt and looming budget crises (actually, it would be more accurate to say that the latter two gave a press conference; the president gave a statement, and then departed without taking questions). Though the $487,000,000,000.00 in upcoming DoD budget cuts – which Panetta called “politically sensitive” – were repeatedly mentioned (particularly by Deputy SecDef Carter in the second part of the presser), the entire conference on America’s “strategic turning point” (a.k.a. America’s “historic shift to the future“) was an exercise in generalities, with Panetta continually referring reporters to Obama’s forthcoming budget for specifics. Whether he was asked about weapons systems or military health care, Panetta never strayed far from his standard line that “everything was on the table” and “the President’s budget will have more specifics.”

A key message that Panetta and Dempsey repeatedly hammered was that the overall force (particularly the Army and Marine Corps) would be undergoing a “resizing” that, while made necessary by budget imperatives, would ostensibly be prevented from leading to a reduction in overall capability by the accompanying defense strategy.  While the “unique global leadership role of the United States in today’s world” would continue to be recognized and acted on, Panetta said, a necessary part of this will be a stronger reliance on “alliances” and an effort to “find innovative ways to sustain US presence” abroad.  Given the resource problems that have been demonstrated by our effort to engage in combat and nation-building efforts in two countries at once over the last decade (not to mention the contingency operations being conducted in several other locations worldwide), it’s clear such deep cuts will have an effect on defense capability, even if America’s military is reorganized and its strategy rewritten with the new budgetary reality squarely in mind.

Given the cuts being made, the effectiveness, comprehensiveness, and workability of the new military strategy is of paramount importance.  President Obama seemed to acknowledge this with a statement that amounted basically to a perversion of an old Rumsfeldian maxim: We won’t go to war with the Army we have any longer, Obama seemed to say; instead, the Army we have will dictate the wars we choose to participate in.

Listeners to the press conference can be forgiven if they experienced a sense of deja vu upon hearing promises like, “The U.S. force will be smaller and leaner, but more agile, more flexible, ready to deploy more quickly, innovative, and technologically advanced.” As buzzwords like “smaller,” “leaner,” “agile,” “flexible,” and “creative” kept popping up, it was difficult to avoid recognizing the blueprint for this “new” force for what it clearly is: basically the same flexible, mobile, and quickly-reactive force that Donald Rumsfeld attempted to form early in the previous decade, when he was Secretary of Defense.
There’s no question that an agile, flexible, etc. military has its benefits, particularly in an age of widely-diffused, rapidly-emerging threats; however, just how that more agile military is designed and arrived at is an important issue, particularly in light of how stretched the total force has been over the last decade. Though long-term counterinsurgency operations will likely be avoided as much as possible in the near future (particularly by the current administration), and though unmanned ISR and offensive operations are being conducted with greater and greater frequency, there is clear danger in drawing down our nation’s force too far too fast, as well as in indiscriminately slashing defense funding.

One subject Panetta did clearly address was America’s ongoing shift in focus away from Europe and NATO, and toward the Persian Gulf and Asia-Pacific region. This suggests that the much-hyped AirSea Battle concept will continue to move forward, likely at the cost of funding, attention, and presence in western Europe and in NATO activities in the near- and long-term future.

Much has been made recently of the potential loss of America’s ability to fight a two-front war should these cuts and reorganizational measures come about. Panetta and Dempsey attempted to staunch that concern by declaring that “How we defeat the enemy may vary across conflicts, but we will have the ability to confront and defeat more than one adversary” at a time (though this claim was met with its share of derision, as may be expected). Though the vast majority of the presser was general in nature, Panetta touched on this topic with a specific example of a necessary capability for the U.S. military of the future: the ability to fight a land war on the Korean peninsula while forcibly keeping the Strait of Hormuz open and trafficable.

Panetta and Dempsey were offered the opportunity by a reporter to expand on the effect that the reorganization brought about by half a trillion dollars in cuts would have on America’s ability to project force internationally in general and in the Middle East in particular.  One reporter asked, point-blank, “Is fighting a land war in Iran off the table as the result of this strategy? Dempsey vehemently responded that “Nowhere in [the new military strategy] does it say we’re not going to fight land wars…it’s matter of scope, scale, time, risk, reversibility.”

The principle of “reversibility” was emphasized repeatedly throughout this vague discussion of cuts and reorganization. In layman’s terms, this basically means that any changes and cuts should be able to be reversed or undone should the need arise. According to Carter, reversibility will be a key consideration in each aspect of the new strategy, including technology and R&D.  However, all involved similarly emphasized the damage that sequestration could do to what is clearly a more fragile military transformation than today’s players sought to let on.  In the third paragraph from the end of his post on drawdowns and budget cuts, Max Boot suggests that “If even one year of sequestration were to occur, major weapons systems (which will be costly and difficult to restart) might be cancelled—and great numbers of veterans (whose experience would be lost forever) might be layed [sic] off.”  In this vein, Panetta saved his own strongest words for Congress, which he warned more than once to avoid the disastrous, across-the-board cuts that would result from the sequestration negotiated in last year’s budget battle, while emphasizing that the cuts alluded to today are entirely separate from (and additional to) those that would have to be made should sequestration occur.

There was never any question that the end of America’s part in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the redoubled efforts by civilian leaders and military brass to move the U.S. military beyond its cold war, conventional state/regional-conflict-based model, would necessitate a certain amount of drawdown and reorganization. Without the specifics that Panetta refused to provide in advance of Obama’s budget drop, it’s difficult to comment further on the coming changes, other than to note what may be an obvious fact: that $487,000,000,000.00 in cuts will invariably affect capability, manpower, readiness, and power projection.  These cuts can either be made intelligently or unintelligently. We’ll know more in the future, but in the meantime we can only hope that these changes were made in the former mode, and that Gen. Dempsey was correct when he declared that “this isn’t the strategy of a military in decline.” If the looming sequester takes place, on the other hand, we may be dealing with a whole different animal in terms of readiness and capability. It’d certainly be nice not to have to cross that bridge.

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