US: Obama strategy for new, “leaner” military under fire by Republicans

Updated On: Jan 06, 2012

On Thursday, US President Barack Obama announced a broad new military strategy for the United States, which will be much “leaner” and as well as “agile, flexible, ready and technologically advanced.” The strategy will mean a massive cutdown in the number of US ground troops, and has been met with strong criticism from various sides. The controversial move is expected to meet difficulty when a budget is submitted to Congress late this January.

A force for the future

President Obama claims the new strategy will fulfil the US need to cut defence spending and more effectively answer the new threats the country will face in coming years.

“The tide of war is receding,” said the President, emphasising that the US must now plan for the “force we need for the future.” That force is a much smaller one which will emphasize rotational deployments and joint exercises with allied nations, along with other innovative approaches, says Defence Secretary Leon Panetta. Both Obama and Panetta were at great pains to emphasize that the budget cuts would not mean a less effective or less powerful US military.

The plan will mean letting go of more troops on top of 27,000 soldiers and 20,000 Marines which were to be cut from the Army and Marine Corps according to previously scheduled downsizing. Personnel reductions will be done at a slower pace so as to ensure that the labour force is not inundated with servicemembers, and to ensure that the men will not be “abandoned.” The ‘leaner’ force will still retain its many vehicles, like the 11 carriers of the Navy and the Air Force’s 2,500 aircrafts. Cyberspace defence, intelligence gathering, as well as surveillance and reconnaissance are also safe from the cuts. There will also be a greater focus on special operations forces, which are more flexible and will be deployed more often for joint exercises with other nations.

The move is a surprising and controversial move away from the traditional US strategy of maintaining a capacity to fight two wars at any time. For decades, it was the underlying tenet for Pentagon planners, but Obama’s new strategy will mean that exhaustive, resource-heavy “nation-building” wars like that in Iraq and Afghanistan will no longer be feasible. According to Michael O’Hanlon, military analyst at the Brookings Institution, it is very unlikely that the US will have to fight two wars in the future.

Another major difference in the new strategy is its intended direction—the US military will focus on retaining some presence in the Middle East, but more importantly, the US “will be strengthening our presence in the Asia Pacific,” which observers would agree mean the US will dedicate its attention to matching Chinese predominance in the region.

Leaner, meaner fighting machine or American retreat?

On Capitol Hill, critics claim the strategy places budget restraints over the country’s core interests. The Pentagon will cut at least $450 billion from the budget in the next decade, and $500 billion more, if plans for more reductions are followed through.

Rep. Randy Forbes, a Republican from Virginia, says the strategy is a “menu for mediocrity.” Charles Krauthammer from the Washington Post sharply criticized Obama, saying the new strategy “does exactly what the president had said he was not going to do, which is it will adapt our capacity and our strategies to fit a budget.”

Others are less preoccupied with the budget cuts, and are more worried about the message the downsizing will send to prospective aggressors like “Iran and North Korea.” Dov Zakheim, formerly in the Pentagon under George W Bush and advisor to presidential candidate Mitt Romney doubts Panetta and Obama’s claims, and questions whether the new strategy would be sufficient if “there is a threat from Iran and threat from North Korea.”

There are heavier criticisms of the President, like that expressed by Rep. McKeon from California, who claims the changes have created a “lead-from-behind strategy for a left-behind America,” claiming the president is “[packaging US] retreat from the world in the guise of a new strategy to mask his divestment of our military and national defence.”

The plan as it is has not been fleshed out, and will have more details further along the road. The strategy will be much clearer in late January, when the budget is due for review by Congress. Judging by the severe criticisms by various officials, Congress may make the final decision to axe the strategy, and President Obama seems set for a difficult reelection campaign.

The announcement of the controversial military strategy has followed at the heels of a similarly controversial decision to appoint a consumer watchdog in the supposed defence of the middle class, despite heavy resistance from Republicans in the government who claim the appointment is illegal.

International reactions

The announcement of the new plan has caused some anxiety on the Korean peninsula. The South Korean Defence Ministry claims the strategy will not have a negative impact on the nation, but the South Korea-US military strategy envisions the deployment of 690,000 US soldiers on the peninsula should war break out, but the new US strategy would make such a deployment impossible. The news has also come during a time of high tensions following the death of Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un’s rise to power.

Beijing is believed to be understandingly concerned by the move, as some see it as an effort to encircle China and contain its power. Australian ambassador and former defence minister Kim Beazley believes that will not be a concern. Australia is a close military ally of the US, and claims that its ally’s position is “very sophisticated…it’s not a containment strategy.” Such a strategy would put Australia’s A$113 billion two-way trade relationship with China at risk.

The US has kept up appearances of maintaining cooperative relations with China, but has continued to dedicate its efforts to solidifying a presence in the hotly disputed South China Sea, much to Beijing’s dismay.

Report: Pentagon defends Obama's plan for leaner military (USA Today, 6 January 2012)

Report: Obama Describes Refocused Strategy for Leaner Military (The New York Times, 5 January 2012)

Report: Obama’s Defense Strategy Emphasizes Asia, Cybersecurity (Bloomberg Businessweek, 5 January 2012)

Report: Military Strategy Follows Our Predictions (Miller-McCune, 5 January 2012)

Report: Obama: 'Military Will Be Leaner,' But Ready For All Threats (NPR, 5 January 2012)

Commentary: Krauthammer: Obama military reforms a ‘road map of American decline’(The Daily Caller, 5 January 2012

Report: What Does the New U.S. Defense Strategy Mean for S.Korea? (Chosun Ilbo, 6 January 2012)

Report: China should not fear new U.S. defense strategy (Reuters, 5 January 2012)

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