WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is putting his personal stamp on a rejiggered Pentagon strategy for absorbing hundreds of billions of dollars in defense budget cuts, marking a turning point in U.S. security policy after a decade of war.
Obama planned to make a rare appearance in the Pentagon press briefing room Thursday to announce results of a strategy review that he ordered last spring. The aim was twofold: Streamline the military in an era of tighter budgets and reassess defense priorities in light of China's rise and other global changes.
Obama's decision to announce the results himself underscores the political dimension of Washington's debate over defense savings. The administration says smaller Pentagon budgets are a must but will not come at the cost of sapping the strength of a military in transition, even as it gets smaller.
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.
Obama also wants the new strategy to represent a pivot point in his stewardship of defense policy, which has been burdened throughout his presidency by the wars he inherited and their drag on resources.
The revamped 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 radically alter 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 spokesman Tommy Vietor said Wednesday that Obama was closely involved in the defense strategy review, meeting six times since September with top defense officials, including Panetta and Dempsey. Vietor said the review established priorities to ensure that defense spending cuts are "surgical."
As for Obama's decision to make a personal appearance at the Pentagon, Vietor said, "It's a sign of how personally engaged he is in this process and the level of importance he puts in shaping our priorities for the next decade."
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. An additional $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. A further $18 billion could be saved by delaying the building of a new fleet of nuclear-capable bomber aircraft, he says.
Robert Burns can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP