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New U.S. Defense Strategy: War On Terror Not Over, Defense Cuts, and Focus On China

In a much-anticipated speech at the Pentagon, President Barack Obama has formally unveiled “the projected security environment and the key military missions for which the Department of Defense (DoD) must prepare” in the coming decade. 

Focus by pundits has fallen on how this new guidance explicitly lays down a focus on the Asia Pacific region and China. However, buried in some very diplomatic language also lie further points of interest, especially proof the War on Terror (WoT) is not yet over. Attention should also be given to the principles by which upcoming equipment cuts must be decided and the strongest statement yet that the days of U.S. defense commitment to Europe are over. 

The guidance paper, entitled “Sustaining U.S, global leadership: priorities for 21st century defense” is intended as a blueprint for U.S. defense reform, “providing a set of precepts that will help guide decisions” in the medium-term.

In line with Obama’s recently announced “Pacific Pivot” policy, eager commentators have seized upon a focus on Chinese expansion and explicit references to new partnerships with South Korea and India as the main takeaways.

However, I would like to highlight three less obvious, but equally important points in this new strategy:

The WoT is not over: While the withdrawal from Iraq and killing of Osama Bin Laden is evidence that the U.S. has severely damaged international terror groups, those who hoped the new strategy would distance Washington from the WoT will be disappointed. 

“For the foreseeable future, the United States will continue to take an active approach to countering these threats”, the strategy asserts, including “directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary.”

Drone strikes in the Middle East will clearly remain a modus operandi for the coming decade. 

The logic of equipment cuts: Perhaps disappointingly for those who have called for the U.S. to be strategically realistic in line with current resources, this strategy continues to advocate a “full spectrum” defense posture. The strategy promises that “we will maintain a broad portfolio of military capabilities,” while preparing for every type of campaign — from counter-insurgency to all-out war.  

But how is this possible in the face of $487 billion defense cuts, with the possibility of $500 billion more if Congress remains deadlocked? 

Obviously not, and within the rhetoric, the strategy accepts this. A key idea is the “concept of reversibility” — in short, that deep cuts to some areas are coming, but that “the DoD will manage the force in ways that protect its ability to regenerate capabilities.” 

Alongside reversibility, the report also suggests the need to re-examine the balance of active and reserve personnel. And of course, “Big Government” comes in for a rhetorical beating, with calls to “reduce the cost of doing business” amongst the civilian staff. 

Perhaps a little vague, but also a green light to begin scrapping programs.

Goodbye Europe: Finally, the document notes “a strategic opportunity to rebalance the U.S. military investment in Europe.” Though avoiding headline words such as “withdraw,” the strategy notes that in an “evolving strategic landscape, our posture in Europe must also evolve.” 

What does “evolve” mean? This is hardly explicit, but the devil is in the details, with one key statement standing out, that “most European countries are now producers of security rather than consumers.” 

This is a huge reversal of direction. In June, outgoing Secretary of Defense Bob Gates venomously noted the exact opposite — that Europe was increasingly militarily powerless. What changed?

The answer: nothing. But the U.S. cannot be seen to abandon a region that is powerless, or upset its NATO allies. Thus, by claiming Europe can handle its own security — whatever the reality — Washington can justify finally withdrawing forces from bases in Germany and elsewhere entirely.

This strategy thus marks the end of a troop-based U.S. defense commitment to Europe, and its replacement with a missile defense arrangement instead.

The Pentagon’s new strategic guidance is not a precise reference guide for U.S. defense in the next decade. It contains numerous grey areas, and space for maneuver should the strategic environment change. Nonetheless, the points above, for me, are helping flesh out the rhetoric of the “Pacific Pivot,” and more precisely understand where U.S. military activity will focus, and where cuts will fall.

For Europe, it also indicates that the days of extensive U.S. defense commitments are over.

Photo Credit: Lt. Cmdr. J.T. Schofield

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