Pentagon Strategy Review: Why It Matters

A week ago, no visions of Pentagon strategy reviews were dancing in the heads of journalists, pundits or budget wonks. One well-placed New York Times article and one little announcement of a presidential stop-by later, and all eyes that can tear themselves away from the froth of New Hampshire will be watching the president and Secretary Panetta roll out a "strategic review," intended to guide the 2013-2018 budgets, at the Pentagon today.

Why should you care, what should you be watching for, and how will the announcement affect politics, the budget process and the security of actual Americans? Your questions answered below.

What is this? It's a rare out-of-cycle re-consideration of fundamental US military strategy, aiming to realign the behemoth of our national defense (more costly than just about every other global military entity combined) with three new realities:

• Post-post-9/11: The post-9/11 decade, with its focus on extremist terrorism above all other threats, and its primary counter-strategy of Asian land wars and extended military occupations, is receding in the rear-view mirror. This means we don't need the ground forces (Army and Marines) at the size to which they were built up to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan simultaneously.

• Asia pivot: Obama and Panetta have both said the military will beef up its Asia-Pacific presence as part of a larger rebalance of focus away from Europe and the Middle East. In addition to ending the wars, this implies reducing the number of troops stationed in Europe; and it implies a greater focus on sea lanes, airpower and offshore presence, as distinct from ground-based counterinsurgency warfare.

• End of the gravy train: More than a year of quiet conversation at the Pentagon and defense-industry consolidation have made clear that insiders knew, as then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen said last year: having this ready spigot of money "hasn't forced us to make the hard choices. It hasn't forced us to prioritize. It hasn't forced us to do the analysis. And it hasn't forced us to limit ourselves and get to a point or deciding, in a very turbulent world, what we're going to do and what we're not going to do."

No, Really, What Is This? Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced the review last April in the context of the White House's initial announcement that it would hold growth in Pentagon spending below inflation. It's an admission that the February 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, designed to set military strategy, was insufficiently transformational for the strategic and budgetary environment. And it's a structure that gave the Pentagon's vast bureaucracy, not to mention the outside complex of contractors and advisers, time to absorb new financial realities.

How Dramatic Are These Changes? Not very. 2012 and 2013 Pentagon spending will represent the first real declines in military spending in more than a decade; but the total 8% cut envisaged is less than the Reagan defense builddown of the 1980s (yes, you read that right). As Colin Powell said: "When the Cold War ended 20 years ago, when I was chairman and Mr. Cheney was secretary of Defense, we cut the defense budget by 25 percent. And we reduced the force by 500,000 active duty soldiers, so it can be done. Now, how fast you can do it and what you have to cut out remains to be seen, but I don't think the defense budget can be made, you know, sacrosanct and it can't be touched."

Moreover, even if the more dramatic cuts in the Budget Control Act sequester were enacted, they would only return the Pentagon to 2007 levels. (Dear Congress, please return the value of my house to its 2007 level. ASAP) On the strategic level, the much-ballyhooed move away from maintaining the ability to fight and win two regional wars simultaneously is less than meets the eye: the change has been discussed since the Cold War ended, and even as we fought two wars to something less than "wins" in Iraq and Afghanistan, military strategists have quietly moved toward a "win-hold-win" model where we have enough forces to, for example, respond to a North Korean attack while keeping the Taliban out of Kabul until Pyongyang was vanquished, and we could resume the mission in Afghanistan.

Is this a rare sighting of bipartisan security strategy? Yup. The Obama crowd is midwifing a set of moderate changes that military strategists of many stripes have been discussing for decades. Eliminate an aircraft carrier because missile technology has made them expensive sitting ducks? Naval analysts wrote about it in the 1980s after the Chinese taunted our carriers... in the 1970s. Slow or reduce the deployment of new nuclear submarines that could consume the entire shipbuilding budget? Navy brass and arms control experts agree on that one, not always happily. Cut back the entire 20th-century nuclear complex? A deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs, ex-Cabinet Secretaries, top nuclear scientists agree. Less spending on ground troops, more on technology? That crazy liberal Donald Rumsfeld was all over it. Reform, consolidate the ridiculous excesses of the F-35 and its multi-service variants? Get in line. No more land wars in the Middle East: we refer you to former Secretary Gates' comment that a leader who contemplates that "should have his head examined." The third rail of military health care and retirement benefits? Bush Administration Pentagon Comptroller Dov Zakheim and the Defense Business Board are the ones leading the cheering section.

How Will the Politics Play? Some of these reforms will gore particular regional oxen -- Connecticut on submarines, for example. Gates and then Panetta have moved carefully and worked hard to bring the Pentagon with them, limiting the flow of outraged leaks. The overall strategic frame is not easy to argue with. But given that the President's leading rival has argued for increasing US defense spending to a permanent 4% of GDP, adding 100,000 US ground troops and increasing annual shipbuilding from nine to fifteen -- and that Rick Santorum, this week's anti-Romney, has called for land invasions of Iran and Syria -- it's a safe bet that the 1970s-vintage "Democrats-Gut-the-Military" press releases are already loaded.