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.