Transforming the armed forces

By Walt Braun

President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta didn’t spring many surprises Thursday when they outlined plans to recast defense strategy while cutting military spending by about $487 billion in the next decade.

What the president calls for makes sense, especially given the federal deficit. Expected cuts would only satisfy congressional mandates; the failure of the supercommittee to agree to a deficit deal supposedly mandates about $500 billion more in military cuts.

The president’s purposes include transforming the military from one that fights protracted, labor-intensive wars such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan into a more agile force that would exploit advanced technology and special forces to serve the nation’s national interest. Geographically, it would focus on Asia, the Pacific and the Middle East.

“Our military will be leaner, but the world must know that the United States is going to maintain our military superiority,” President Obama said.

Not surprisingly, many Republicans seem to doubt that. U.S. Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Forces Committee, didn’t pull his punches. “This is a lead-from-behind strategy for a left-behind America.” U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican who chairs a committee on military readiness, was similarly critical. He called the proposal “a menu for mediocrity.”

Without knowing all the details, a thorough assessment is difficult. Still, Republicans who have been the most strident in demanding spending cuts are in a poor position to criticize them. While we don’t doubt that politics factors into both the president’s timing and GOP criticisms, what the president is proposing bears considerable resemblance to the scaled-down forces that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld envisioned before he and President George Bush planned the invasion of Iraq.

Two simultaneous land wars have exhausted our military — its personnel and its machinery. What’s more, drones and special forces have proven highly effective. Deploying them while maintaining enough of a conventional force to fight if absolutely necessary seems sensible.

The plan the president and Secretary Panetta outlined is expected to trim the Marine Corps over 10 years by 25,000 members to about 175,000 Marines. The Army would be scaled back from about 570,000 soldiers now to 490,000 in a decade.

The Army cuts hold special interest for this area because of what they could mean for Fort Riley and its civilian communities. Some personnel cuts at the post in the coming years would seem unavoidable. However, not only is Fort Riley at record or near-record strength now, but the Pentagon has invested tens of millions of dollars in recent years improving everything from housing to recreational, transportation, shopping and medical facilities.

We don’t pretend to know what the Pentagon will do, and it doesn’t take much uncertainty pertaining to the post to make civic leaders nervous. Still, we can take some comfort in the knowledge that Fort Riley is highly valued by the Pentagon.

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