Pentagon chief: Smaller military means extra risk

Thursday - 1/5/2012, 2:04pm EST

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (Video still from Jan. 5 press conference on Pentagon Channel)

By ROBERT BURNS
AP National Security Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama vowed Thursday the United States will maintain the best-equipped military in history despite deep and looming defense budget cuts, but Pentagon leaders acknowledged the changes present additional risk.

"Our military will be leaner, but the world must know the United States is going to maintain our military superiority," Obama said in a rare appearance in the Pentagon briefing room.

LISTEN TO THE BRIEFING

President Barack Obama

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey

Question and answer session with reporters

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and several top military brass lined up on the stage behind him, underscoring Pentagon support for cuts that Panetta and others said they know will be criticized as too drastic.

Obama said the emerging strategy overhaul is designed to contend with hundreds of billions of dollars in budget cuts and refocus the United States' national security priorities after a decade dominated by the post.-Sept. 11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The strategy, devised through a comprehensive review by civilian and military leaders, centered on the military the country needs after the "long wars of the last decade are over," Obama said.

Panetta said that smaller military budgets will mean some tradeoffs and that the U.S. will take on "some level of additional but acceptable risk." But Panetta said that at this point in history, in a changing world, the Pentagon would have been forced to make a strategy shift anyway. He says the money crisis merely forced the government's hand.

The president announced that the military will be reshaped over time with an emphasis on countering terrorism, maintaining a nuclear deterrent, protecting the U.S. homeland, and "deterring and defeating aggression by any potential adversary."

Those are not new military missions, and Obama announced no new capabilities or defense initiatives. He described a U.S. force that will retain much of its recent focus, with the exception of fighting a large-scale, prolonged conflict like the newly ended Iraq mission or the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

"As we end today's wars and reshape our armed forces, we will ensure that our military is agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies," the president wrote in a preamble to the new strategy, entitled, "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense."

The strategy hints at a reduced U.S. military presence in Europe, notwithstanding a continuing close relationship with NATO, and says Asia will be a bigger priority. It also emphasizes improving U.S. capabilities in the areas of cyberwarfare and missile defense.

Obama's decision to announce the strategy himself underscores the political dimension of Washington's debate over defense cuts. 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 him 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 pivotal point in his stewardship of defense policy, which has been burdened throughout his presidency by the wars he inherited and the drag these conflicts have placed on military resources.

The new strategy moves 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 theoretical ground war in Korea _ at the same time.

The document released Thursday made clear that while some current missions of the military will be curtailed, none will be scrapped entirely.

"Wholesale divestment of the capability to conduct any mission would be unwise, based on historical and projected uses of U.S. military forces and our inability to predict the future," the document said.

The administration and Congress already are slashing projected 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.