Panetta to unveil plan to decimate the military
It was US defense policy for decades that we should have a military capable of fighting one large ground war (formerly in Europe) and a smaller, regional war (Korea) at the same time. This made sense in a bi-polar world where the Soviets were threatening Europe and Asia was a tinderbox.
In the early part of this century, Donald Rumsfeld sought to change that strategy - or at least alter its parameters - by emphasizing special forces and intelligence as a means to fight the jihadists. But he still wanted to maintain 11 carrier strike groups and a large, global, air force capable of projecting American power in a very short period of time.
Now comes Obama and Leon Panetta who appear to want to upend the military establishment and, thanks to the inability of congress to agree on budget cuts, slice a trillion dollars out of the defense budget over the next decade while degrading our ability to respond to crisis.
In a shift of doctrine driven by fiscal reality and a deal last summer that kept the United States from defaulting on its debts, Mr. Panetta is expected to outline plans for carefully shrinking the military - and in so doing make it clear that the Pentagon will not maintain the ability to fight two sustained ground wars at once.
Instead, he will say that the military will be large enough to fight and win one major conflict, while also being able to "spoil" a second adversary's ambitions in another part of the world while conducting a number of other smaller operations, like providing disaster relief or enforcing a no-flight zone.
Pentagon officials, in the meantime, are in final deliberations about potential cuts to virtually every important area of military spending: the nuclear arsenal, warships, combat aircraft, salaries, and retirement and health benefits. With the war in Iraq over and the one in Afghanistan winding down, Mr. Panetta is weighing how significantly to shrink America's ground forces.
There is broad agreement on the left, right and center that $450 billion in cuts over a decade - the amount that the White House and Pentagon agreed to last summer - is acceptable. That is about 8 percent of the Pentagon's base budget. But there is intense debate about an additional $500 billion in cuts that may have to be made if Congress follows through with deeper reductions.
Much of these cuts would come at the expense of personnel in the form of reduced salaries, health insurance, and retirement benefits. The F-35 stealth fighter is almost certainly on the chopping block, as are plans to replace aging ships with newer models. Reductions in the number of ground forces might be doable if we continue to see China and Russia as, if not friends, then as not quite enemies. But it would take years to grow our ground forces to the point where we could fight a winning war against either of those two potential adversaries - years that we wouldn't have to counter a move by China into Taiwan, or a restless Russia trying to recapture its old empire.
The military budget should be subject to the same scrutiny as any other government spending. And we must carefully and thoughtfully develop a defense strategy that is realistic and prudent. But there is nothing realistic or prudent about cutting a trillion dollars over a decade from our defense budget. It won't make us safer and will make the world a more dangerous place.