The Pentagon on Thursday unveiled a sweeping new military strategy that jettisons plans for fighting two major wars at once while cutting the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal.
The strategy describes a new approach to fighting al Qaeda and puts China and Iran on notice, while readying the military for reduced funding and more austere budgets.
“As we look beyond the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and the end of long-term nation-building with large military footprints — we’ll be able to ensure our security with smaller conventional ground forces,” President Obama said in prepared remarks for a Pentagon briefing laying out the new strategy.
“Yes, our military will be leaner, but the world must know — the United States is going to maintain our military superiority with armed forces that are agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats,” Obama said.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said the shedding of the two-major war planning framework was necessary because it was "an anchor" on the Pentagon that was designed for the Cold War.
Senior Pentagon officials said the new planning construct will work better for the kind of leaner, more agile force that might be needed to quickly respond to a number of situations and conflicts.
At the same time, Obama and the Pentagon’s new strategy argue that the U.S. military can effectively fight al Qaeda even with reduced funding.
“We will keep our armed forces the best-trained, best-led, best-equipped fighting force in history,” Obama writes in the strategy.
Republicans in Congress were quick to blast the new plans, accusing Obama of putting America's military dominance at risk.
“This is a lead-from-behind strategy for a left-behind America,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.). “The president has packaged our retreat from the world in the guise of a new strategy to mask his divestment of our military and national defense. This strategy ensures American decline in exchange for more failed domestic programs.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, did not directly criticize Obama, but said the United States cannot have a “budget-driven defense strategy.”
“The United States must continue to lead the world in order to ensure our economic prosperity and national security,” McCain said. "For that reason, when it comes to how we fund and procure our defense programs, business as usual will not cut it. I intend to ensure that our national defense strategy and budgets continue to strengthen America in its position of global leadership.”
The strategy states that as the Afghanistan war winds down, the U.S. operation against al Qaeda will "become more widely distributed." It also will be designed to include "a mix of direct action and security force assistance," meaning the U.S. will help allies combat the extremist network.
In the era of smaller Pentagon budgets, the military "must be capable of deterring and defeating aggression ... in one region even when our forces are committed to a large-scale operation elsewhere," according to the strategy.
The document also vows that Washington will "invest as required" to field the kinds of combat systems that allow U.S. forces to enter and operate where "states such as China and Iran" have weapons intended to deny such access.
The calls for a smaller nuclear arsenal are sure to draw fire from hawkish congressional Republicans.
The strategy argues deterrence goals “can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force," and suggests a reduction in the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy.
The call for nuclear weapons cuts is an exception in the strategy, which otherwise does not spell out what weapons systems would be cut as the Pentagon budget shrinks. Those specifics will come next month when the 2013 military spending plan goes to Capitol Hill, officials say.
The new strategy signals troop cuts will be coming — but contains no numbers. "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations," it says.
While officials declined to say just how many troops will be shed, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Cater said the U.S. force will become "somewhat smaller."
They offered a few hints about where cuts might be made, vowing to eliminate Cold War-era weapon systems while also opting against "retaining force structure" for the kinds of prolonged stability operations like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the same time, however, officials were quick to note the military is not walking away from stability operations and counterinsurgency missions.
Dempsey told reporters to resist interpreting the strategy as saying the U.S. military will never again conduct those sorts of operations.
Many of the answers about what will get cut and how many troops will be shed will come in several weeks when the Pentagon unveils its 2013 budget plan.
But that blueprint won't be all about cuts.
Panetta said the strategy shows the Pentagon will increase funding to buy intelligence-gathering platforms, cyber warfare tools and "capabilities to quickly mobilize." Another aspect of the force likely to see increased annual funding are special operations forces like those that, as Obama put it Thursday, "brought justice to Osama bin Laden."
The president reiterated U.S. plans to shift focus to the Pacific region, with an emphasis on China as the wars in the Middle East near an end.
"As I made clear in Australia, we’ll be strengthening our presence in the Asia Pacific, and budget reductions will not come at the expense of this critical region,” Obama said.
The so-called "comprehensive review" was ordered last year by Obama, at the behest of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The former Pentagon chief wanted to ensure more than $400 billion in budgets cuts over a decade were made strategically.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey both have said the military can remain lethal and effective if the $350 billion in cuts through 2013 mandated by the August debt deal stand. (The Pentagon contends that will equal a $450 billion cut to planned spending.)
The strategy reveals plans to shake up America's military presence in Europe, which will move "from a focus on current conflicts toward a focus on future capabilities."
The document signals the military will continue adding to its cyber arsenal of offensive and defensive systems. It also states the Pentagon will "enhance" its ability to "conduct effective operations to counter the proliferation of [weapons of mass destruction]."
Jeremy Herb contributed to this story.
This story was last updated at 2:47 p.m.