McFeatters: Long-needed Defense overhaul will fine-tune military

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It’s been known for years that the unwieldy Pentagon and the entire armed forces have needed a massive overhaul. Finally, it’s happening.

Former defense chief Donald Rumsfeld talked endlessly about remaking the military but got so mired in starting and fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan he couldn’t accomplish his mission.

But faced with the mandate to cut $487 billion from the defense budget over the next 10 years, President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have devised plans for a visionary strategy for America’s military that is the most dramatic in more than half a century.

Obama and Panetta held months of meetings with top military leaders about America’s future defense needs. If they are able to implement the new strategy (there will be much squawking from members of the very Congress that demanded huge cuts), the country will be well-served.

Obama and Panetta decided not to opt for across-the-board cuts but to think through the needs of the modern military. They concluded national security no longer depends on large numbers of uniformed troops, but on intelligence, having the right-size force deployed at the right place at the right time and national fiscal discipline.

At last, the military will acknowledge that the Cold War is over, that waging two huge land wars at once is no longer feasible or desirable and that better use of technology and well-trained special operations forces are the wave of the future. Uniformed men and women will not have to deploy year after year.

The most significant aspect of the new strategy is that U.S. troop strength will not be large enough to conduct simultaneous counterinsurgency campaigns such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, special operations forces will be deployed for specific objectives.

No budget specific cuts have been unveiled yet — specifics will be revealed when Obama releases his proposed budget in a few weeks. And it is specific cuts that individual members of Congress will deplore. (Don’t cut you. Don’t cut me. Cut that man behind the tree.) But the overall changes are dramatic and welcome.

The strategy asserts that the military will spend more effort on Asia, the Pacific region and the Middle East and less on Europe, choosing instead to bolster NATO and other alliances.

Lessons learned

The military learned a lot from Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama said. Those lessons need to be translated into more flexibility, innovation and diplomacy.

Obama said the United States will depend on smaller conventional ground wars. The country will get rid of outdated Cold War systems and gear up surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance. The military will be better able to operate in environments where adversaries try to deny the U.S. access.

War will be declared on duplication among the services, waste and weaponry that doesn’t justify development costs. Benefits will be cut. Panetta promises that there will be no break in faith with veterans, troops and their families. “We want to maintain quality of benefits that flow to troops and families. But we have to control costs,” he said.

The aim, said Obama, will be balance, always a worthy goal and often hard to achieve. Obama went to Panetta, a veteran of budget cuts, skilled in the ways of the White House, Congress, the CIA and the Pentagon. If Panetta can’t do it, nobody can. He has promised that national security will not be lessened or compromised, and he will be held to that.

The United States has been at war for a solid decade — the longest period of continuous war in our history. Thousands have died and been wounded. The cost in dollars has been enormous. We will argue forever the merits of those wars and how they were waged.

But if we have learned how to defend ourselves and thwart aggressors more cheaply and more efficiently, some good will have come from the huge sacrifices made by so many.

Ann McFeatters is a Scripps Howard columnist who has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. Email: amcfeatters@nationalpress.com.