By Louis Jacobson
As global threats have changed, the U.S. military has had difficulty keeping up.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised that “each major defense program will be reevaluated in light of current needs, gaps in the field, and likely future threat scenarios in the post 9/11 world. We must rebalance our capabilities to ensure that our forces can succeed in both conventional war-fighting and in stabilization and counter-insurgency operations.”
The most immediate question is: Has there been a comprehensive review under Obama?
The answer is: Yes, several.
First, in February 2010, came the Quadrennial Defense Review, which is mandated every four years by Congress. Then, in January 2012, the Obama administration went beyond congressional requirements by releasing two reports — one outlining strategic priorities for the military and the other offering more detail about how those priorities would be reflected in particular programs.
The fact that Obama personally unveiled the two reports at the Pentagon showed their significance, said Todd Harrison, a fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
The backdrop for these analyses is the need to shrink the federal budget — even if the deep cuts of the “fiscal cliff” are avoided by a last-minute legislative deal.
“The major programs have certainly been reevaluated, but not exactly in the way Obama intended,” said Laura Peterson, a senior policy analyst for national security at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group that analyzes federal spending and opposes programs it considers wasteful. Initially, she said, the Defense Department “was still in major denial about the impact our dire financial straits would have on its budget. Now, of course, everything at DOD is being evaluated and reevaluated for whether or not it can be saved from the budgetary knife.”
The 2012 review addressed the fiscal pressure openly. “It is not possible to accommodate a budget reduction of the magnitude … without scaling down force structure and delaying, decreasing, or in some cases eliminating investments,” the review noted. “The strategic guidance was written to guide these reductions in a manner that minimizes the risk to our ability to protect U.S. interests in an evolved national security environment.”
So the reviews were done as promised. How much have their recommendations for “rebalancing” been adhered to? It’s much too early to tell for sure, but there are some indications that they are being followed, military experts told PolitiFact.
The two reviews in 2012 outlined five strategic priorities:
- Shift forces and investments toward the Asia-‐Pacific and Middle East regions.
- Be able to defeat a major adversary in one theater while denying aggression elsewhere or imposing unacceptable costs.
- Continue supporting technologically advanced capabilities such as unmanned aerial vehicles and cyberwarfare.
- Downsize forces to fit an era with fewer large, protracted stability operations like Iraq and Afghanistan.
- Carry out major adjustments in a way that allows for their reversal if circumstances change in the future.
Carl Conetta, director of the Project on Defense Alternatives, said the Pentagon hasn’t turned on a dime, but he did say that “some rebalancing has occurred or is underway.”
Among other things, Conetta cited reductions in future fighter wings and purchases of F-35 stealth fighters, a big rollback in the Army’s Future Combat System modernization program, continued growth in special operations, increased investment in both drones and counter-improvised explosive device technology, and a greater emphasis on security cooperation rather than undertaking major counterinsurgency campaigns.
Several experts we interviewed said Obama”s promise was so vague that it allows the Pentagon lots of wiggle room. They also emphasized that it’s going to be years before we know whether the transformation promised in the strategic review is fully implemented. In addition, it’s worth noting that one phrase in Obama”s campaign promise — to “ensure that our forces can succeed in … stabilization and counter-insurgency operations” — has been deemphasized in the strategic reviews.
Still, the administration clearly kept its (very broad) promise to conduct a review — and even went beyond the requirements set by Congress in doing so. But the harder task of rebalancing the U.S. military”s capabilities remains a work in progress. On balance, we rate this a Compromise.
Department of Defense, main page for the Quadrennial Defense Review, accessed Dec. 18, 2012
Department of Defense, “Defense Budget Policies and Priorities,” January 2012
Department of Defense, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” January 2012
Email interview with Carl Conetta, director of the Project on Defense Alternatives, Dec. 17, 2012
Email interview with Charles Knight, senior fellow at the Project on Defense Alternatives, Dec. 17, 2012
Email interview with John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, Dec. 18, 2012
Email interview with Laura Peterson, a senior policy analyst for national security at Taxpayers for Common Sense, Dec. 17, 2012
Email interview with Todd Harrison, fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Dec. 17, 2012