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Budget cutting forces Pentagon to review strategy

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Craig Whitlock, Washington Post
Special to In Homeland Security

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered the Pentagon to reconsider a sweeping military strategy that the Obama administration unveiled just last year to determine whether it is still affordable in light of recent budget cuts.

Hagel’s move calls for a reassessment of a defense strategy that President Obama himself presented at the Pentagon 14 months ago as the centerpiece of his administration’s national security policy. The strategy declared that the government would shift its military, diplomatic and economic attention to Asia after a decade of absorption in the Middle East while scaling back its land forces and unilateral missions that had become too expensive.

The original strategy was drawn up under the assumption that the Pentagon would have to stomach about $490 billion in budget cuts over a decade. Because of unresolved fiscal battles between Congress and the White House, however, the military may be forced to reduce its spending by twice that amount — as much as $1 trillion over 10 years.

“As I stand here today, I don’t yet know whether, or if, or how much our defense strategy will change, but I predict it will,” Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday during an appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “We’ll need to relook at our assumptions, and we’ll need to adjust our ambitions to match our abilities.”

Defense officials said they did not expect a wholesale revision of Obama’s strategy. But they said they needed to plan for a range of possible outcomes given the fiscal wrangling between Obama and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Under the forced spending cuts known as sequestration, the Pentagon must cut $46 billion — nearly 9 percent of its annual base budget — by the end of September. Military officials are still hoping that Congress and the White House will restore at least some of the money, but there is no guarantee.

“This is absolutely not a rewrite of the defense strategy,” said a senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning. “It’s a budget contingency exercise that’s intended to lead to a responsible look at what we might need to do under sequestration.”

Hagel has assigned Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter to conduct the review with Dempsey and the Joint Chiefs. They were given a May 31 deadline to complete the work, Pentagon officials said.

Already, however, the armed services are bracing for cutbacks that could shrink parts of the military to levels last seen before the massive buildup that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Army planners, for example, are considering the possibility that they will have to further reduce the size of their force to approximately 440,000 active-duty soldiers — about 50,000 fewer than the Pentagon projected last year. The Army now has about 540,000 soldiers.

The Marine Corps will also likely face pressure to keep shrinking beyond a 10 percent cut announced last year that would consolidate the Corps at 182,000 active-duty personnel by 2016.

Craig Whitlock, Washington Post
Special to In Homeland Security

Gen. James F. Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, warned this month in an open letter to troops and their families that additional painful cuts were likely.

“We are already a lean and frugal service,” Amos said. “Every reduction that we make from this point forward will cut into bone — we are beyond muscle.”

Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank with close ties to the Obama administration, predicted that Hagel’s review would reaffirm the basic outlines of the defense strategy while making accommodations for tighter budgets.

“I don’t expect a fundamental strategic change,” she said. “The alternative would be to say we don’t want to be a global power anymore, that we’re going to be a regional power, and I don’t see anyone in the Defense Department saying that.”

whitlockc@washpost.com

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