Obama unveils defense strategy for a changing, austere world

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

The Pentagon's new strategy for countering emerging threats in an era of shrinking resources reflects the Obama administration's belief that ground wars like Afghanistan are a thing of the past while air and naval conflicts against nations like Iran or China will be the biggest security challenges facing the U.S. in the years ahead.

The document unveiled by President Obama during an unusual Pentagon visit is a blueprint of sorts for the military in the years ahead. It is a clear reflection of the new budgetary realities facing the military as its budget starts falling after a decade of steady growth. Military funding will fall by more than $450 billion in the years ahead; if automatic sequestration cuts take effect, it will lose another $500 billion.

Below are some of the strategy's key points:

  • Moving away from a belief in the necessity of fighting two ground wars at the same time in favor of fighting one while "denying and deterring aggression" elsewhere, including using limited amounts of ground forces. This has been heralded as a major shift, but isn't. Donald Rumsfeld was arguing that the so-called "two war doctrine" was outdated more than a decade ago, and his successor, Robert Gates, regularly argued that there was no foreseeable possibility of large-scale ground conflicts in the near future.
  • Shrinking the Army and Marine Corps by tens of thousands of troops because the manpower-heavy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are over or winding down, paired with a belief that future conflicts won't be long ground wars. In an opening letter, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the new force will be "smaller and leaner." The document also acknowledges that the era of counterinsurgency-which has fallen out of favor because of the length and cost of the Afghan war-is basically over. "U.S. forces," the document states, "will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations."
  • Shifting more military and financial resources away from Europe and toward the Asia-Pacific region while expanding a security partnership with India.
  • Continuing to work with the Treasury and State departments to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. This will involve operations to "locate, monitor, track, interdict, and secure" weapons of mass destruction and their essential components. The document also suggests that the size of the American nuclear arsenal may shrink.
  • Requiring closer cooperation between the Air Force and Navy to leverage their individual strengths as a way of effectively countering Iran or China despite the overall cuts to the Pentagon budget.
  • Devoting new resources to intelligence and Special Operations units involved in counterterror missions around the globe.
  • Expand the military's abilities to wage cyber-war and operate in space.
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