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Obama Plan Would Slash Army, Limit Ability to Endure Long-Term Conflicts

WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama on Thursday proposed a historic shift in the U.S. military's size and ambitions, scaling back its ability to wage the type of war and occupation that just concluded in Iraq as the administration seeks to cut defense spending over the next decade.

Under the proposal, the Army would face a 14% reduction in troops—leaving it with too few to conduct two grueling ground wars at once, long a strategic imperative of the Defense Department. The plan also indicates reductions in the nation's nuclear arsenal and a delay in the Pentagon's most expensive weapons, such as the F-35 stealth jet made by Lockheed Martin Corp.

President Obama unveiled a new defense strategy Thursday that creates a "leaner" and "agile" military that uses smaller conventional ground forces amid cuts in federal spending.. Julian Barnes has details on The News Hub. Photo: AP

Overall, the plan envisions shrinking military spending by $487 billion over 10 years, a cut of about 8% in coming years, according to Pentagon figures. While the president has wide latitude to set military priorities, specific cuts the Pentagon will announce in coming weeks must be approved by Congress.

President Obama said the nation was "turning the page" on a decade of war. But the president and Pentagon leaders said they weren't abandoning the U.S. role as the pre-eminent global power

"Our military will be leaner, but 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," he said in a rare appearance by a president at the Pentagon.

Announcement of the strategy prompted a swift response from Republicans. Sen John McCain (R., Ariz.) said the U.S. couldn't afford a "budget-driven defense strategy" but said he would review the document released by the administration. "I understand the need for reductions in defense spending, but we must also address the broader cultural problem plaguing our defense establishment: the waste, inefficiency, and ineffective programs," Sen. McCain said.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno of the Center for a New American Security, a centrist think tank that often is aligned with the administration, said the plan "fails to address the elephant in the room: whether this strategy can hold up under the weight of further defense cuts," particularly additional cuts contained in the debt-ceiling agreement Congress reached last year.

But Charles Knight, co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives, which advocates more aggressive defense-spending cuts, said the administration's plans were "only baby steps" toward greater fiscal restraint.

"The first strategic priority of the United States today is to get its economic house in order," he said. "Doing this means spending less on the military in coming years."

Criticism is likely to grow in coming weeks as details of the cuts emerge. Key Republican presidential candidates, including Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, have proposed increases in defense spending, and have criticized proposed Pentagon cutbacks in the past.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the military still will be able to respond to multiple crises at once, deterring aggression around the globe. "Make no mistake, we will have the capability to confront and defeat more than one adversary at a time," he said.

But, he said, "the Army and Marine Corps will no longer be sized to support the large-scale, long-term stability operations that dominated military priorities…over the past decade."

Mr. Obama said he wouldn't repeat the mistakes of past administrations by crippling the military through postwar cuts. But some Pentagon officials—anxious to stave off the possibility of further reductions—said the proposed reductions will be as deep as those after Vietnam and the Cold War when cuts in annual emergency war spending are counted.

WSJ's Nathan Hodge reports executives from the defense industry are reaching out the field of GOP candidates as part of efforts to stem cuts. This comes as President Obama is set to outline plans for Pentagon budget reductions. AP Photo.

Details of the cuts will be announced in coming weeks as part of the Pentagon budget.

Defense officials said the Army, currently at 570,000, likely will shrink to about 490,000.

A strategy document released Thursday said the military will be redesigned to fight one war using air, land and sea forces, while still being able to take on involvements in another region.

Mr. Panetta and defense contractors have argued for months that the planned cuts, while tolerable, are quite steep. But they have contended that an additional $500 billion to $600 billion in cuts over the next 10 years triggered by last year's congressional deal on the country's debt ceiling would be ruinous for the military.

"The capability, readiness and agility of the force will not be sustained if Congress fails to do its duty and the military is forced to accept far deeper cuts," Mr. Panetta said Thursday. "That would force us to shed missions and commitments and capabilities that we believe are necessary to protect core U.S. national security interests. And it would result in what we think would be a demoralized and hollow force."

 

Associated Press and Getty Images

The strategy document reflects the Obama administration's preference for operations such as the war in Libya, which entailed a large coalition of nations and no U.S. ground forces. The strategy also touts the utility of U.S. special operations forces, which have decimated the leadership of al Qaeda.

Also emphasized in the new strategy are counterterrorism operations—missions using special operations forces that create only a small overseas footprint and work with local forces.

Intelligence and surveillance will take on increasingly important roles, meaning the Air Force fleet of unmanned drones is likely to grow.

A new U.S. emphasis on Asia is reinforced by the strategy as the Pentagon plans to shift its focus and resources away from Europe. The Pentagon sees challenges in China's military modernization and is planning the new military approach to more aggressively counter Beijing's "anti-access" technologies, weapons such as China's DF-21D antiship ballistic missile, used for keeping U.S. ships at greater distances.

Mr. Obama approved a buildup of forces in Afghanistan, but administration officials have always viewed counterinsurgency operations with skepticism. The new strategy reflects the administration's view that counterinsurgency conflicts are too costly, while yielding murky results and incremental gains for international security.

Defense officials said they wouldn't abandon the military's expertise in conducting stability operations, but would move some of the resources to military reserves. That would preserve the ability of the Army to conduct limited counterinsurgency.

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