President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta began to fill in the blanks this week about what military and foreign policy spending might look like in an era of less spending. The sweeping $487 billion in proposed budget cuts are the result of last summer's bitter deficit debate, which called for arbitrary spending cuts at the Pentagon and throughout the federal budget. Obama — noting the wind-down of two wars — appropriately cited President Dwight Eisenhower's postwar call for balance of resources among the federal government's programs. But this specific proposal, forced by fiscal politics, needs to also make sense for national security. America's military needs to become leaner, but it also must be smarter. The appropriate question now is whether these specific cuts serve that purpose.
The cuts, about 8 percent of the Pentagon's base budget to be implemented over the next 10 years, have received rare bipartisan support. Most notably, Panetta, who served as President Bill Clinton's Office of Management and Budget director, has proposed reducing ground forces from the Army and Marines, currently at 772,000, by as much as 35 percent to 505,400, saving $387 billion. Also under consideration is the elimination or reduced production of the controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, which could realize savings between $6 billion and $48 billion. Other budget cuts would come from a reduction in Europe of 50,000 troops; adjustments to the Pentagon's retirement program; and phasing out aging Cold War-era weapons systems while increasing the reliance on air and sea power.
These are big numbers. And they could go higher if an additional $500 billion in cuts, expected to start in 2013, are imposed by Congress. They are sure to be controversial in local communities dependent on military installations or defense contractors. America's military establishment, while the guardian of the nation's security, is also a powerful domestic lobby. But with the war in Iraq at an end and the eventual withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, the nation can no longer justify nor sustain such a large and costly military presence around the world.
By virtue of the proposed cuts, the United States would be moved to abandon its long-standing two-war at once doctrine. In a realistic acknowledgement of where future security exigencies may arise, Panetta sensibly would reduce the U.S. military footprint in Europe, while increasing the air and naval presence in the often dangerous neighborhoods of the Middle East and the Pacific.
The probability of returning to the days of great armies amassing on vast battlefields is remote. The challenge now is to be nimble enough to battle terrorist groups and rogue nation- states. Congress, even as it forces new austerity, must remain mindful that the cuts not jeopardize U.S. interests. The most daunting challenge is to ensure the United States will still deploy the world's foremost combat-ready military power.