So far, however, Panetta has cut few major weapons programs and steered clear of any bold moves aimed at remaking the military for this new era. The watchword for Panetta’s tenure, senior defense officials said, has been “humble.”
“He’s told the service chiefs to be humble in their predictions of warfare,” one senior official said.
Panetta’s approach reflects a management style that throughout his career has placed a premium on consensus over major reforms and collegiality over bold thinking, said officials who have worked with him. “He has always run a happy, productive shop,” said former ambassador James Dobbins, who worked closely with Panetta in the Clinton White House.
Because he has not spent his career in the national security realm, Panetta has tended to rely more heavily on the Pentagon’s top generals for advice than his predecessors did, senior military officials said.
In an interview describing his defense strategy, Panetta said he has helped craft an approach that hedges bets against a range of potential enemies. “It really does provide maximum flexibility,” he said. “The military is going to be smaller, but it is going to be more agile, more flexible and more deployable so that it moves fast and stays on the cutting edge of technology.”
Panetta’s vision is notable for some of the big questions left unanswered. A highly touted promise to shift the military’s focus to Asia has produced little in the way of major new deployments. Nine months after it was unveiled, there is scant evidence of how it will be implemented.
“This is a time when you would expect an intense focus on where we want to go and what we want to be,” said Andrew Hoehn, a senior vice president at the Rand Corp. and a former Pentagon strategist. Hoehn said such a debate does not appear to be happening inside the Pentagon or in the presidential campaigns, which have largely ignored national security issues.
Although the war in Iraq has ended and troops are being withdrawn from Afghanistan, Panetta has not pressed the ground forces to conduct a tough and detailed examination of their performance in the two long and costly wars, said Eliot Cohen, a military historian at Johns Hopkins University and an adviser to Mitt Romney’s campaign.
In recent years, Army and Marine Corps officers have tended to blame their struggles on the State Department and other federal agencies, which were unable to provide the necessary help to rebuild the war-torn countries’ governments and economies.
Cohen said the finger-pointing has prevented the ground services from acknowledging their own shortcomings, such as their inability to produce a core of experts in the culture, politics, history and languages of the two countries where they have spent most of the past decade fighting.