WASHINGTON —President Barack Obama on Thursday unveiled a new defense strategy that will shrink the country’s armed forces at a time of tight budgets but pledged to maintain U.S. military superiority in the world.
“Our military will be leaner but the world must know — the United States is going to maintain our military superiority with armed forces that are agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats,” Obama told a news briefing at the Pentagon.
Emphasizing the American presence in the Asia-Pacific region, where there is growing U.S. rivalry with an increasingly assertive China, Obama cautioned the military would remain vigilant in the Middle East.
U.S. troops last month completed their withdrawal from Iraq, which was invaded in 2003 to topple dictator Saddam Hussein, and are winding down their presence in Afghanistan.
Obama, focused on boosting economic growth and curbing stubbornly high U.S. unemployment as he fights for reelection in November, said that ending those two wars was an opportunity to rebalance national spending priorities after a decade of conflict.
Noting the defense budget had witnessed “extraordinary” growth after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Obama said that pace of spending would slow but continue to grow.
“I firmly believe, and I think the American people understand, that we can keep our military strong — and our nation secure — with a defense budget that continues to be larger than roughly the next 10 countries combined,” he said.
Obama has already earmarked defense budget cuts of $489 billion over 10 years. The defense budget faces an additional $600 billion in cuts after Congress failed to agree to broad deficit reduction after an August 2011 debt ceiling deal.
The president’s budget proposal for 2013 will be published in early February.
“Some will no doubt say the spending reductions are too big; others will say they’re too small,” Obama said. “After a decade of war, and as we rebuild the sources of our strength — at home and abroad — it’s time to restore that balance.”
In putting his stamp on the cuts, Obama outlined two things: The need to streamline the military in an era of tighter budgets and reassess defense priorities in light of China’s rise and other global changes.
Obama’s decision to announce the results himself underscores the political dimension of Washington’s debate over defense savings. The administration says smaller Pentagon budgets are a must but will not come at the cost of sapping the strength of a military in transition, even as it gets smaller.
In a presidential election year, the strategy gives Obama a rhetorical tool to defend his Pentagon budget-cutting choices. Republican contenders for the White House already have criticized Obama on a wide range of national security issues, including missile defense, Iran and planned reductions in ground forces.
Obama also wants the new strategy to represent a pivot point in his stewardship of defense policy, which has been burdened throughout his presidency by the wars he inherited and their drag on resources.
The revamped strategy, outlined at a news conference also attended by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Joint Chiefs chairman, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, is not expected to radically alter defense priorities. It may set the stage, however, for expected cutbacks in Europe and big weapons programs.
The administration and Congress already are trimming defense spending to reflect the closeout of the Iraq war and the drawdown in Afghanistan. The massive $662 billion defense budget planned for next year is $27 billion less than Obama wanted and $43 billion less than Congress gave the Pentagon this year.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Wednesday that Obama was closely involved in the defense strategy review, meeting six times since September with top defense officials, including Panetta and Dempsey. Vietor said the review established priorities to ensure that defense spending cuts are “surgical.”
As for Obama’s decision to make a personal appearance at the Pentagon, Vietor said, “It’s a sign of how personally engaged he is in this process and the level of importance he puts in shaping our priorities for the next decade.”
Factors guiding the Obama administration’s approach to reducing the defense budget are not limited to war-fighting strategy. They also include judgments about how to contain the growing cost of military health care, pay and retirement benefits. The administration is expected to form a commission to study the issue of retirement benefits, possibly led by a prominent retired military officer.
The administration is in the final stages of deciding specific cuts in the 2013 budget, which Obama will submit to Congress next month. The strategy to be announced by Panetta and Dempsey is meant to accommodate about $489 billion in defense cuts over the coming 10 years, as called for in a budget deal with Congress last summer. An additional $500 billion in cuts may be required starting in January 2013.
A prominent theme of the Pentagon’s new strategy is expected to be what Panetta has called a renewed commitment to security in the Asia-Pacific region.
On a trip to Asia last fall, Panetta made clear that the region will be central to American security strategy.
“Today we are at a turning point after a decade of war,” Panetta said in Japan. Al-Qaida is among a range of concerns that will keep the military busy, but as a traditional Pacific power the United States needs to build a wider and deeper network of alliances and partnerships in that region, he said.
“Most importantly, we have the opportunity to strengthen our presence in the Pacific — and we will,” he said.
The administration is not anticipating military conflict in Asia, but Panetta believes the United States got so bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 that it missed chances to improve its position in other regions.
China is a particular worry because of its economic dynamism and rapid defense buildup. A more immediate concern is Iran, not only for its threats to disrupt the flow of international oil but also for its nuclear ambitions.
Looming large over the defense budget debate is the prospect of reducing spending on nuclear weapons.
Thomas Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association, believes the U.S. nuclear program can cut $45 billion over the coming decade without weakening the force. He estimates that reducing the U.S. strategic nuclear submarine force from 12 subs to eight could save $27 billion over 10 years. A further $18 billion could be saved by delaying the building of a new fleet of nuclear-capable bomber aircraft, he says.