By Sandra I. Erwin
The Defense Department has concluded it can no longer afford to satisfy current demands for military forces from overseas commanders. As a result, it is considering cutting back on forward-stationed forces and deployments, said Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work.
“We are really taking a hard look at our whole global posture,” Work said Sept. 30 at the Council on Foreign Relations, in Washington, D.C. The U.S. military has maintained forces around the world consistently since the Cold War, but as budgets decline and forces shrink, the Pentagon has to rethink its commitments, Work said. “It will be different,” he added. The details of the plan are still under debate.
While there is a big appetite around the world for American leadership, the Obama administration believes that other countries need to step up and share the security burdens, said Work.
The Army and the Marine Corps, particularly, are on a path to reducing its ranks by more than 120,000 troops collectively over the next several years. The cutbacks were prompted by the end of the wars in Iraq and the drawdown in Afghanistan, and by spending limits set by Congress.
The military is now facing a new set of crises, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, operations in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State, and an Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In addition, it needs to have enough forces training at home to ensure they can “respond to the environment,” Work said.
“We are trying to find the right mix” between forward-deployed and U.S.-based forces that would be training for an unforeseen contingency. “As we face the challenge of a reduced budget, we are having to critically reexamine the assumptions that have driven the mix since the end of the Cold War,” he said.
In the past, “We assumed we could have forward presence forces without unduly undermining the readiness of the U.S. based force,” Work said. This is now becoming “harder and harder to sustain.”
With new commitments and less money, “something has to give,” he added. “Maintaining the military at a high tempo is no longer sustainable in this budget environment. … It prevents us from preparing for future contingencies.”
Part of the ongoing debate is figuring out what a minimum deterrent force should be for each theater, and still have sufficient troops to respond in other hotspots. The plan is to change from a demand model — where commanders get whatever they ask for — to a supply-based approach.
To be sure, the Pentagon will not be immediately walking away from its major overseas commitments, Work insisted. “We’re still going to maintain a robust forward deployed force. But our forces won’t be large enough to give our combatant commanders all the forces they want at any given time.”
The current military strategy, which calls for a “rebalance” of forces to Asia, is still is in place, said Work. But if Congress does not lift the spending restrictions it set in the 2011 Budget Control Act, that strategy will be “reevaluated,” he said.
During a recent tour of Asian nations, Work said foreign leaders frequently asked him if the rebalance is real. He reassured allies that the Pentagon is committed to the plan, but that it will not happen as quickly or as forcefully as envisioned before steep budget cuts hit the Pentagon in 2013.
Although the Pentagon has the world’s largest military budget, projected to exceed $500 billion a year even under sequestration, Work said the problem is that the Defense Department is saddled with unwanted programs and military personnel costs.
The Pentagon is seeking to cut about $70 billion a year by retiring aging equipment, closing facilities and changing military benefits, but Congress has said “no” to every single proposal.
The standoff over the Pentagon’s recommended cuts comes as the Defense Department braces for the possibility of automatic sequester reductions next year. With a new war in the Middle East now under way, military officials are pleading Congress for relief.
“When we submitted the budget last year … one of the assumptions was that the number of commitments would either level off or come down. And secondly, that we would get some flexibility in the budget to change paid compensation, health care, retire weapons systems and infrastructure,” said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But commitments have gone up, he said last week at a Pentagon news conference. “The things that we were looking for in terms of flexibility have only very minimally been delivered.” His prediction: “We are going to have budget problems.”