WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is preparing to tighten its belt, but with an election-year battle looming in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wants to stress the positive: Parts of the budget devoted to reshaping the military to fit a new global strategy will actually get fatter, he says.
But that's unlikely to mollify Republicans who say President Barack Obama's plan will leave the Pentagon stretched too thin to handle potential security threats in the Middle East, Asia and beyond.
Panetta is expected to outline the main areas of proposed spending cuts and increases at a Pentagon news conference Thursday, more than two weeks before the Obama administration submits its 2013 budget proposal to Congress. He will be joined by Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for a presentation designed to highlight the military leadership's embrace of defense cuts.
Panetta and Dempsey are expected to cast the plan as one that reflects President Barack Obama's strategy for reorienting the military as it recovers from a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Prominent in the Obama plan is a renewed focus on Asia, where China's rapid military modernization has raised worry in Washington and rattled U.S. allies. That, along with continued security threats in the Middle East — especially Iran — is why Panetta wants to invest more in certain air and naval assets. He also is putting a focus on cybersecurity and commando forces like those who killed Osama bin Laden last May and who swooped into Somalia on Tuesday to rescue two hostages, including an American.
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.
To save money, Panetta would reduce the size of Army and Marine Corps ground forces and shrink the U.S. presence in Europe, while maintaining a commitment to building missile defenses in Europe.
He also is expected to delay production of perhaps 100 or more of the F-35 Lightning II stealth attack planes that the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps are counting on to replace a portion of their aging aircraft fleets. The F-35 is the Pentagon's most expensive weapons program. Nonetheless, it is among those that Panetta has publicly identified as central to a strategy for maintaining American air dominance.
According to defense officials, substantial budget savings will come from slowing — but not eliminating — programs. In the case of the F-35, Loren Thompson, defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, said there are no plans to cut the total number of fighters purchased — which is about 2,400. Instead, the intention is to reduce the number bought each year over the next five years.
The construction of some Navy ships also may be stretched out over a longer period.
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 is expected to make clear that the basic structure — a "triad" of land, sea and air nuclear forces — will be maintained. The Pentagon may find some savings by stretching out planned modernization programs.
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.
The defense budget this year is nearly $671 billion, including a base budget of $553 billion and $118 billion in war costs. Panetta is expected to announce on Wednesday that the administration's request for 2013 will drop to about $525 billion for the base budget. That is still far higher than the $480 billion base budget for the Pentagon in 2008, President George W. Bush's final year in office.
The administration's projected defense cuts would total nearly $490 billion over 10 years. If Congress fails to agree on other reductions in federal spending this year, the defense hit could double under automatic cuts that would take effect in January 2013.
Several Republicans argue that even the initial cuts totaling nearly $490 billion would "hollow" the military and costs tens of thousands of jobs nationwide, adding to an 8.5 percent unemployment rate that they already blame on the president's economic policies.
"While Secretary Panetta has conceded that our nation is now accepting more risk as a result of the budgetary vise squeezing the Pentagon, it remains unclear exactly what risks our nation is assuming," Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., a House Armed Services Committee member, said this week.
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