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President Obama’s Defense Readjustments Shaped by New Strategic and Fiscal Realities

Shift in Military Posture Focuses on 21st Century Threats

SOURCE: AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, left, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, and other senior Defense Department and military officials, delivers speaks on the Defense Strategic Review, at the Pentagon on January 5, 2012.

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See also: A Return to Responsibility: What President Obama Can Learn About Defense Budgets from Past Presidents by Lawrence J. Korb, Laura Conley, and Alex Rothman; Sensible Defense Cuts by Lawrence J. Korb, Laura Conley, and Alex Rothman; Defense in an Age of Austerity by Lawrence J. Korb and Alex Rothman

President Barack Obama unveiled sweeping changes yesterday to U.S. military strategy that are the result of an extended Pentagon review of our strategic interests and defense priorities. After a decade of war and nation-building coming at a tremendous cost to the United States in both blood and treasure, President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the military’s shift to a more agile and sustainable posture primarily focused on protecting U.S. interests in the Middle East and Pacific and countering 21st century threats.

The cornerstone of this change is a reduction in the size of the ground forces. In particular, the Army, which added 65,000 positions while carrying out the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will return to numbers slightly above its pre-September 11 size of about 480,000.The Army will, however, increase the size of its special forces.

With the United States unlikely to undertake extended nation-building operations in the foreseeable future, this new strategy will rely increasingly on the United States’ overwhelming naval and air superiority to project power around the globe. Moreover, the Pentagon will funnel more resources into countering 21st century threats, principally terrorist groups and subnational actors, nuclear proliferation, anti-access technology (a key element of China’s strategy to restrict U.S. capabilities in East Asia), and cyber security.

Equally important, President Obama’s new strategy will allow the United States to refocus its attention on its economy, which is the bedrock of U.S. global power and strength. As President Obama noted in his remarks, and as we at the Center for American Progress have emphasized repeatedly, “We must put our fiscal house in order here at home and renew our long-term economic strength.”

The new strategy will enable the Department of Defense to find savings of nearly $500 billion throughout the next decade from projected levels of defense spending. (This will not affect veterans programs, which are funded through the Veterans Administration.)

In fact, this reduction—as the United States winds down its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan—is quite moderate when compared to prior defense drawdowns. President Dwight Eisenhower, for example, cut the defense budget by 27 percent after the Korean War. President Nixon cut it by 29 percent after Vietnam, and the combined efforts of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton reduced defense spending by a whopping 35 percent after the end of the Cold War.

Under President Obama’s plan the defense budget will continue to grow in nominal terms, though not quite fast enough to keep up with expected levels of inflation. Even with $500 billion in reductions, the United States will continue to spend more on defense each year in the next decade than it did during the height of the Cold War and, as the president noted, more than the next 10 countries combined.

President Obama’s plan also leaves room for additional cuts. The Center for American Progress has identified fiscally responsible reductions that, if implemented throughout the next decade, would reduce defense spending by about $700 billion without undermining our national security.

The Department of Defense will announce the specific program cuts that will enable it to meet the $500 billion target in its fiscal year 2013 budget, due next month. But President Obama’s strategy—and his goal of $450 billion in savings in 10 years—present a responsible step toward regaining control of the defense budget, which skyrocketed by nearly 70 percent under the Bush administration.

Excess defense spending does not make our nation safer. It diverts resources from critical investments here at home. President Obama is wise to use the U.S. drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan as a turning point to update and improve U.S. national security strategy while clamping down on the waste and mismanagement that plagued the Department of Defense in the past decade.

Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Alex Rothman is a Special Assistant with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center.

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