Lawmakers geared up for battle over defense spending, military strategy

Democrats and Republicans in Congress are poised for an ideological battle in 2012 over the future of the U.S. military.

For the first time since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Washington’s military strategy and priorities are in flux. The Iraq conflict has ended, the Afghanistan war is on pace to wrap up in 2014 and the Obama administration is enacting plans to shrink the growth of the Pentagon budget. 

“The military certainly is at a crossroads,” Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Defense, told The Hill. 

While lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that the military has reached a point of transition, the consensus largely ends there. The Obama administration and many congressional Democrats favor a smaller, leaner, cheaper military. But GOP lawmakers and many analysts warn that the world is too unstable for the United States to dial back its military might. 

In a series of interviews with The Hill, members of both parties agreed that any changes to the nation’s military strategy, construct and priorities should be based on a revised strategy. But as the fallout from the Obama administration’s announcing of a new defense plan showed, there are sharp differences about what form that strategy will take.

President Obama and Pentagon leaders say their new defense plan will require a “leaner” and “more agile” force, and intend to cast aside parts of the force needed for protracted stability operations.

Senior Pentagon officials said the strategy shift is necessary so the force can fight a major conflict while responding quickly to other conflagrations across the globe. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the envisioned force’s “greatest strength” is that it would be “more agile, flexible, ready to deploy, innovative and technologically advanced.”

But Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), an Army veteran and House Armed Services Committee member, said the country is “about to do what we always do after wars end” — mistakenly slash defense funding. 

“We need a steady state defense budget,” West said, adding that budgetary “peaks and valleys” make it tough to maintain a lethal military that is feared by potential foes.

Republican lawmakers told The Hill a large and robust U.S. military is necessary, and said the force would be devastated by budget cuts that go beyond the $350 billion slated to take place over 10 years. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a vocal proponent of U.S. military involvement in just about every corner of the globe, recently said U.S. officials must “resist the temptation” to say there will be “no more big land wars.”

The Obama defense strategy makes clear that officials believe budget realities and fewer ongoing hot wars make Army and Marine Corps troop reductions necessary.

Graham argued Pentagon and administration officials must ensure the military has the “land, sea and air capabilities — as well as the firepower to protect troops in the region — to do a strike on Iran’s nuclear [sites].”

Pro-military Democrats including Rep. Robert Andrews (N.J.), a senior House Armed Services Committee member, said the time has come for the U.S. military to shrink its global footprint.

Andrews told The Hill it is time to “rethink our bases in Europe,” perhaps by opting to build more aircraft carriers to project American power. Though carriers are expensive, in the long run, Andrews said, another carrier or two would be cheaper than maintaining so many bases.

A powerful GOP lawmaker on defense issues, House Armed Services Committee Vice Chairman Mac Thornberry (Texas), told The Hill in late December that it will be important for “us to invest in the weapons needed to project power, especially in Asia.”

Obama’s new defense strategy codifies the administration’s ongoing shift of its foreign and national security policies toward that region, and calls for increased investment in platforms to combat China’s military buildup.

“We will ... expand our networks of cooperation with emerging partners throughout the [region] to ensure collective capability and capacity for securing common interests,” according to the strategy.

To that end, the Obama administration already has inked deals with several Asia-Pacific states for U.S.-made fighter jets and helicopters, as well as to permanently host American troops.

In the strategy, the White House says the Pentagon will spend whatever it takes to keep access to and the ability to “operate freely” in China’s backyard.

More details about which strategic paths the Pentagon will follow will be known when its 2013 budget plan is announced in the coming weeks, analysts said. 

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Pentagon adviser, said the Obama plan offers some clues, however.

It calls for “a broad emphasis on technology, the air-land battle in Asia, maintaining a strong posture in the Middle East, relying more on partnerships with our allies, reduced but ready ground forces, and a slowdown in procurement,” Cordesman wrote in a Jan. 5 report.