Obama to unveil austere Pentagon strategy


Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey will join President Obama at the Pentagon. (Evan Vucci/AP)
January 4, 2012

President Obama is scheduled to make a rare visit to the Pentagon on Thursday to unveil details of a strategic review for the U.S. military that will consolidate missions and downsize the ambitions of the armed forces as they adjust to a new era of austerity, officials said.

Obama, who will be joined by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will place his personal imprint on a new military strategy that Pentagon officials have been preparing for months in anticipation of the largest cuts to the defense budget since the end of the Cold War.

The document will call for a greater shift toward Asia in military planning and a move away from big, expensive wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, which have dominated U.S. operations for most of the past decade, said a senior military official.

In particular, the plan calls on the military to invest in weaponry to overcome efforts by potential adversaries such as China to use long-range missiles and sophisticated radar to keep U.S. forces at bay.

The strategy is different from past Pentagon reviews in that it establishes clear priorities for the military, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the plan had not been publicly released.

The strategy review will not spell out potential $480 billion to $1 trillion in spending cuts that the Pentagon is facing over the next decade. Details of those reductions will begin to trickle out next month, when the Obama administration releases its proposed federal budget for 2013.

The consequences of those anticipated cuts, however, are already being felt in the defense industry.

On Wednesday, Boeing announced that it will shutter a factory in Wichita that produces military airplanes for refueling, an early casualty of what is expected to be a wave of closings among defense contractors.

“In this time of defense budget reductions, as well as shifting customer priorities, Boeing has decided to close its operations in Wichita to reduce costs, increase efficiencies and drive competitiveness,” Mark Bass, vice president and general manager, said in a statement.

Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, Northrop Grumman and other major defense companies have warned that budget reductions could mean the loss of hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs.

“There is a standard playbook the defense industry applies when military spending cuts loom: It starts with cutting workers and cutting facilities,” said Loren Thompson, a defense industry consultant at the Lexington Institute. “There will be substantial cuts in the size of defense companies going forward.”

At least some of the 2,160 jobs at Boeing’s Wichita plant will be relocated. The refueling tanker operations will move to a Boeing facility in Washington’s Puget Sound, the company said. Other plant operations will be transferred to San Antonio and Oklahoma City.

The first layoffs at the Wichita plant, once nicknamed “the air capital of the world,” are expected in the third quarter of this year.

The Pentagon’s strategy review was initiated by former defense secretary Robert M. Gates last spring when Obama announced plans to essentially freeze military spending over the next decade — leaving the Defense Department with about $480 billion less than it had anticipated.

The military’s fiscal outlook has grown more bleak since then. In August, Congress and the White House agreed to a deficit-reduction plan that could cut another $500 billion in projected defense spending over the same time period if lawmakers can’t agree on an alternative by the end of this year.

As the Pentagon has contemplated a future with fewer troops and a reduced presence overseas, Obama has involved himself in the strategy review to an unusual degree, holding six meetings with senior Pentagon officials since September to forge the plan, according to administration officials.

Obama has enjoyed high approval ratings in the polls for his handling of national security issues, particularly since May when Navy SEALS located and killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. But as November’s presidential election nears, he has faced heightened criticism from Republican contenders, some of whom have accused him of weakening the military and taking a soft line with foes such as Iran and North Korea.

The move away from counterinsurgency probably will mean further reductions in the size of the Army and Marine Corps.

The Pentagon announced a year ago that the Marine Corps would shed between 15,000 and 20,000 members and the Army 27,000 soldiers beginning in 2015 — the first time either service has faced reductions in troop levels since the mid-1990s.

There are about 202,000 Marines on active duty, up from 175,000 in 2007. The Army has about 565,000 soldiers on active duty, including a temporary increase of 22,000 that is scheduled to lapse in 2013.

With the war in Iraq over and troops starting to come home from Afghanistan, however, pressure is building on both services to downsize even more. The new strategy document explicitly states that the size of the Army and Marine Corps will no longer be governed by the need to conduct large-scale and long-term stability operations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the Pentagon’s internal debates, Dempsey has insisted that any cuts to ground forces must be “gradual and reversible,” according to the senior military official.

The Navy and Air Force are expected to fare better because they will play an instrumental role in the administration’s strategy for Asia, where the United States is seeking to counter China’s expanding military power.

Staff writers Greg Jaffe and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.
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