Panetta’s ‘Balanced’ Defense Strategy Questioned Before It’s Out

The Defense Department promises to deliver tomorrow on pledges to create a “balanced” new U.S. military strategy that puts more emphasis on Asia even as defense budgets are cut. Critics say it can’t all be done.

A “balanced approach essentially means they are not doing anything bold at all,” Dov Zakheim, who was the Pentagon’s controller under President George W. Bush, said in an interview. “Everything gets cut.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will present at a news conference the Pentagon’s strategic review of U.S. roles and missions worldwide. The results will be parsed by allies and adversaries to assess where the U.S. may be pulling back, by military personnel wary of benefit cuts and by defense investors attempting to predict which contractors may benefit or lose out from the new priorities.

“We need to take a hard look” at all defense spending while maintaining U.S. military superiority, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters in Washington yesterday. President Barack Obama has met with Panetta on the issue seven times since September, including a session yesterday, Carney said.

When Panetta’s predecessor as defense secretary, Robert Gates, announced the review last year, he said it was important for the public and Congress to get a full understanding of strategic choices for the U.S. military as it faced $450 billion in additional reductions through 2021, including about $261 billion through 2017.

Taking on Personnel

Zakheim, who is an adviser to Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate, said he is skeptical the administration is willing “to go after personnel accounts.”

“What they really need to do is look much more carefully at trimming operations and maintenance accounts, taking on personnel accounts in a serious way, taking on military retirement in a serious way,” he said. “The question is how far are they going to go?”

The Defense Department won’t rely on cuts in weapons programs as the main way to meet its spending-reduction goals, Deputy Comptroller Mike McCord said Nov. 30.

The number of uniformed personnel, compensation, retirement benefits and continued savings from efficiencies are getting more attention than major cuts in acquisition, according to McCord. The review is taking a “balanced” approach, he said.

Army, Marine Cuts

Panetta may outline troop reductions beyond those announced in February 2011.

The fiscal 2012 budget request called for 547,400 Army personnel and 202,100 in the Marine Corps. The current plan calls for reducing the force in 2015 and 2016 by 27,000 GIs and as many as 20,000 Marines.

Panetta is expected to outline how the U.S. military will increase its Pacific presence, a shift in emphasis that began with the Quadrennial Defense Review in February 2010, which called for the Air Force and the Navy to craft an air-sea battle concept.

The plan is intended to combine the strengths of the Navy and the Air Force for long-range strikes. It may employ a new generation of bombers, a new cruise missile and drones launched from aircraft carriers. The Navy also is increasing funding to develop unmanned submarines.

Obama Asia Pledge

Obama said in November, during a visit to Australia, that “reductions in U.S. defense spending will not -- I repeat, will not -- come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific” region.

Panetta said in a November speech that “even as we enhance our presence in the Pacific, we will not surrender our status as a global power and a global leader.”

Any Pentagon trade-offs “in one area” to beef up the Pacific “will bear consequences in another,” said MacKenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Washington, which opposes major cuts in defense spending.

“As DoD squeezes U.S. force posture in Europe, including bases, it will have a direct impact on the military’s ability to respond to future conflicts like the no-fly zone in Libya, rapid response in Afghanistan post-9/11, and treating the wounded out of Iraq the past decade,” she said in an e-mail. “There are no consequence-free decisions.”

Air Force, Navy

The commitment to Asia “is probably going to put more emphasis on the ‘AirSea battle’ versus land forces,” Robert Stallard, managing director of aerospace research for RBC Capital Markets in New York, said in an e-mail.

“This should mean that Air Force and Navy strategic assets come out relatively well, though we still expect to see budget pressure being felt in pretty much all areas,” he said. “I’m not sure Congress will be comfortable with the Army and Marine Corps being bill-payers for this.”

The strategy review also may revive debate about the Pentagon’s doctrine calling for the capability to fight two major conflicts almost simultaneously.

The Quadrennial Defense Review in 2010 deemphasized that commitment without abandoning it. It said planning should focus more closely on scenarios such as irregular warfare including conflicts involving insurgents or drug traffickers and even humanitarian disasters.

“However you modify that strategy, you won’t get into a position where, if you get engaged in a conflict, you won’t be able to do anything else,” William Lynn, who was then deputy defense secretary, said in an October interview. “You’ll never say, ‘Once I’m in a conflict, everything else I can’t handle.’”

Iran, North Korea

Zakheim said the Pentagon needs to explain clearly any modification in strategy to avoid sending the wrong message to Iran or North Korea.

“Suppose there is a threat from Iran and threat from Korea,” he said. “ What are we going to do? Ignore Iran or ignore North Korea?”

With budget cuts, the best the military can do is prepare to fight one major war while maintaining the capability to make life difficult enough to deter any second adversary tempted to make a move, John Nagl, a member of the Defense Policy Board, an advisory panel, said in an interview.

“It looks like we’re moving away from a two-war strategy,” said Nagl, who is president of the Center for a New American Security, a policy group in Washington. “Some capabilities are going to have to go.”

Budget Proposal

The Obama administration’s annual budget proposal will be released in February. Some details were contained in a Nov. 29 Office of Management and Budget document sent to the Pentagon that provided broad outlines for a fiscal 2013-2017 plan.

Defense spending in 2013 would be reduced about 1 percent from this year’s $518 billion spending plan before growing 1.8 percent in 2014 and 2.3 percent in 2015, dropping 1.9 percent in 2016 and rising 2.2 percent in 2017, according to the 23-page document.

The defense plan for 2012 to 2021 calls for $5.652 trillion in spending, according to the budget office. It calculated that the total defense cut mandated by budget-reduction legislation over those years is $488 billion, or about an 8.5 percent decrease.

That doesn’t include an additional $500 billion from automatic cuts that would take effect in January 2013 unless Congress stops the action.

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