WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is rewriting its defense strategy to absorb hundreds of billions of dollars in defense budget cuts while scaling back the longstanding Pentagon goal of being ready to fight two wars simultaneously.
Underscoring the political dimension of Washington's debate over defense savings, President Barack Obama planned to make a rare appearance at the Pentagon on Thursday to outline the new strategy. The administration says tighter budgets are a must but will not come at the cost of sapping the strength of a military in transition after a decade at war.
In a presidential election year the strategy gives Obama a rhetorical tool to defend his Pentagon budget-cutting choices. Republican contenders for the White House already have criticized Obama on a wide range of national security issues, including missile defense, Iran and planned reductions in ground forces.
The strategy, to be outlined at a news conference also attended by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Joint Chiefs chairman, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, is not expected to mark a big change in defense priorities. It may set the stage, however, for expected cutbacks in Europe and big weapons programs.
It also will move the U.S. further from its longstanding goal of being able to successfully fight two major regional wars — like the 1991 Gulf War to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait or a prospective ground war in Korea — at the same time. This takes into account a bigger focus on immediate threats like cyber warfare and terrorism.
The administration and Congress already are trimming defense spending to reflect the closeout of the Iraq war and the drawdown in Afghanistan. The massive $662 billion defense budget planned for next year is $27 billion less than Obama wanted and $43 billion less than Congress gave the Pentagon this year.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama was closely involved in the defense strategy review, meeting six times since September with top defense officials, including Panetta and Dempsey. Carney said Tuesday the review will set priorities to ensure that defense spending reductions are "surgical."
The notion of sizing and shaping the U.S. military to be able to fight two major regional wars had its origins in efforts by the Pentagon to design a post-Cold War military after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
A decade later senior U.S. officials were questioning the rationale for maintaining a two-war strategy. In June 2001, for example, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Congress the strategy was "not working." But a short time later the U.S. was in fact fighting two wars — in Afghanistan and Iraq — although neither fit strictly the definition of wars against nation-state aggressors.
Factors guiding the Obama administration's approach to reducing the defense budget are not limited to war-fighting strategy. They also include judgments about how to contain the growing cost of military health care, pay and retirement benefits. The administration is expected to form a commission to study the issue of retirement benefits, possibly led by a prominent retired military officer.
The administration is in the final stages of deciding specific cuts in the 2013 budget, which Obama will submit to Congress next month. The strategy to be announced by Panetta and Dempsey is meant to accommodate about $489 billion in defense cuts over the coming 10 years as called for in a budget deal with Congress last summer. Another $500 billion in cuts may be required starting in January 2013.
A prominent theme of the Pentagon's new strategy is expected to be what Panetta has called a renewed commitment to security in the Asia-Pacific region.
On a trip to Asia last fall, Panetta made clear that the region will be central to American security strategy.
"Today we are at a turning point after a decade of war," Panetta said in Japan. Al-Qaida is among a range of concerns that will keep the military busy, but as a traditional Pacific power the United States needs to build a wider and deeper network of alliances and partnerships in that region, he said.
"Most importantly, we have the opportunity to strengthen our presence in the Pacific — and we will," he said.
The administration is not anticipating military conflict in Asia but Panetta believes the U.S. got so bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 that it missed chances to improve its position in other regions.
China is a particular worry because of its economic dynamism and rapid defense buildup. A more immediate concern is Iran, not only for its threats to disrupt the flow of international oil but also for its nuclear ambitions.
Looming large over the defense budget debate is the prospect of reducing spending on nuclear weapons.
Thomas Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association, believes the U.S. nuclear program can cut $45 billion over the coming decade without weakening the force. He estimates that reducing the U.S. strategic nuclear submarine force from 12 subs to eight could save $27 billion over 10 years. Another $18 billion could be saved by delaying the building of a new fleet of nuclear-capable bomber aircraft, he says.
Panetta has not publicly endorsed eliminating any of the three legs of the nuclear "triad" — bombers, subs and land-based missiles — but in a letter to Congress last fall he wrote that if the Pentagon faced an additional $500 billion in spending cuts starting in 2013 it might eliminate the land-based missile leg, saving $8 billion.
Collina in an interview said he doubts Panetta's strategy review will make more than incremental cuts in nuclear weapons spending.
"My guess is it wouldn't reduce or eliminate any leg of the triad," he said.
Robert Burns can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/robertburnsAP