WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama unveiled a defense strategy on Thursday that would expand the U.S. military presence in Asia but shrink the overall size of the force as the Pentagon seeks to slash spending by nearly half a trillion dollars after a decade of war.
The strategy, if carried out, would significantly reshape the world’s most powerful military following the buildup that was a key part of President George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Cyberwarfare and unmanned drones would continue to grow in priority, as would countering attempts by China and Iran to block U.S. power projection capabilities in areas like the South China Sea and the Strait of Hormuz.
But the size of the U.S. Army and Marines Corps would shrink. So too might the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the U.S. military footprint in Europe.
Troop- and time-intensive counter-insurgency operations, a staple of U.S. military strategy since the 2007 “surge” of extra troops to Iraq, would be far more limited.
“The tide of war is receding but the question that this strategy answers is what kind of military will we need long after the wars of the last decade are over,” Obama told a Pentagon news conference alongside Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
The strategy drew varied reactions, with Republican Senator John McCain saying the United States could not afford a “budget-driven defense” and independent Senator Joe Lieberman warning it would “greatly increase the risk” that a U.S. adversary would underestimate the U.S. resolve to fight.
“This is a lead-from-behind strategy for a left-behind America,” said Representative Buck McKeon, Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “The president has packaged our retreat from the world in the guise of a new strategy to mask his divestment of our military and national defense.”
Panetta said the new strategy would mean the Pentagon would field a “smaller and leaner” military force, but added that the exact number of personnel would not be determined until the Defense Department finishes its proposed 2013 budget in the coming weeks.
Administration officials have said they expect Army and Marine Corp personnel levels to be reduced by 10 percent to 15 percent over the next decade as part of the reductions.
The Army’s current strength is about 565,000 soldiers and there are 201,000 Marines, meaning an eventual loss of between 76,000 and 114,000 troops.
Panetta acknowledged the Pentagon’s financial constraints would mean difficult choices and trade-offs that would require the United States to take on “some level of additional but acceptable risk in the budget plan we release next month.”
Critics charged that the cuts were driven by budget woes rather than U.S. defense needs.
“The Pentagon is trying to put on a brave face that this is a pure strategy that has informed the 2013 defense budget,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a national security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
“Everyone knows that the cart was before the horse on this and that Congress and the president picked a budget and this is a strategy to chase down those numbers,” she said.
“This is a classic resource-driven strategy document,” said Gordon Adams, an American University professor who worked on defense budgets in the Clinton administration White House.
“That’s not a criticism, that’s just a reality. It’s inevitable. Strategy always wears a dollar sign,” he said.
Obama and Panetta insisted that the reverse was true and that strategy would inform the spending decisions. But they did not divulge details of spending and cuts, which will be released as part of Obama’s upcoming federal budget for fiscal year 2013.
The president emphasized that even after enactment of the $487 billion in reductions over 10 years that was agreed with Congress in August, the defense budget would still be larger than it was toward the end of Bush’s administration.
“Over the past 10 years, since 9/11, our defense budget grew at an extraordinary pace,” Obama said. “Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defense budget will slow but the fact of the matter is this - it will still grow because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership.”
The shift in focus to Asia comes amid increasing concern at the Pentagon over China’s strategic goals as it begins to field a new generation of weapons that American officials fear are designed to prevent U.S. naval and air forces from projecting power into the Far East.
The new strategy also calls for increased investment in cyber capabilities and suggests the United States may be able to shrink its nuclear arsenal further without jeopardizing security, a statement welcomed by arms control groups and some lawmakers.
The strategy says the United States should maintain a force that can win one major war while still being able to deter an aggressor in a second conflict. In the past the Pentagon has tried to field a force that could fight and win two major wars at once.
Panetta played down the differences, saying the earlier strategy dealt with large conflicts of the past while the current strategy was considering the conflicts the United States is likely to face in the 21st century.
“Make no mistake - we will have the capability to confront and defeat more than one adversary at a time,” he said.
But Representative Mike Coffman, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, expressed alarm over the shift in U.S. posture, saying, “I believe we can make cuts that don’t reduce capability,” a concern that was echoed by Lieberman.
The strategy underscores the United States’ “enduring interests” in Europe and the importance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization but says the force posture in Europe must “evolve” with the changing times, opening the door for troop reductions.
Administration officials have said the United States is likely to further reduce the number of ground forces in Europe by another combat brigade, a unit of 3,000 to 4,000 people depending on its composition.
The strategy also highlights the U.S. interest in maintaining stability in the Middle East while responding to the aspirations of the people as expressed in the “Arab spring” last year. It also says the United States will continue working to halt nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.
The new defense strategy can be found at: here
Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis and Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Eric Walsh