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Panetta: US ground forces would be cut by 100,000

By Robert Burns

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Jan. 26 2012 1:02 p.m. MST

The Pentagon has embraced a proposal by special operations chief Adm. Bill McRaven to send more manpower and equipment to worldwide "Theater Special Operations Commands" to strike back wherever threats arise, according to a senior defense official who spoke to The Associated Press, and other current and former U.S. officials briefed on the program. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the details of the proposal are still being worked out, including how fast the changes could be made.

The stepped-up network would put top special operations personnel closer to the problems they face, better able to launch unilateral raids like this week's Somalia mission. McRaven also wants the newly invigorated commands to build new relationships with foreign armies to help them lead their own operations, the senior defense official said.

Panetta also has made clear the administration will resist any effort to shrink the Navy's fleet of aircraft carriers. He said last weekend while on board the fleet's oldest carrier, the USS Enterprise, that keeping 11 of the warships is a "long-term commitment" that Obama believes is important to keeping the peace.

"Our view is that the carriers, because of their presence, because of the power they represent, are a very important part of our ability to maintain power projection both in the Pacific and in the Middle East," he said.

Obama has said he hopes to further reduce the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but Panetta said the basic structure — a "triad" of land, sea and air nuclear forces — will be maintained. The Pentagon said it will study the potential to shrink that force later.

The defense budget is being reshaped in the midst of a presidential contest in which Obama seeks to portray himself as a forward-looking commander in chief focusing on new security threats. Republicans want to cast him as weak on defense.

Obama has highlighted his national security successes — the killing of Osama bin Laden, the death of senior al-Qaida leaders and the demise of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi — to counter Republican criticism. He also has emphasized the completion of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq and the start of a drawdown in Afghanistan as turning points that offer new opportunities to scale back defense spending.

But several congressional Republicans see a political opening in challenging the reductions in projected military spending that the GOP and Obama agreed to last summer as part of a deal to raise the nation's borrowing authority. They've echoed Obama's potential presidential rivals Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who plead for fiscal austerity but contend that sizable cuts would gut the military.

Associated Press writers Kimberly Dozier and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report. Robert Burns can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/robertburnsAP

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