Pentagon To Rethink Its Strategy, Cut Troops

The Pentagon has announced plans to cut the Army and Marines Corps by tens of thousands of troops over the next five years to meet budget targets set by Congress. In some respects, the plan reflects a return to normalcy after 10 years of war.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

The U.S. military is preparing to do its job with fewer people, better technology and less money than it was once projected to spend. The Pentagon is adjusting its strategy and forces, preparing for what comes after the wars of the past decade. In some ways, the military is returning to its roots, as NPR's Tom Bowman reports.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had two messages yesterday at the Pentagon - first, the size and sophistication of the military.

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SECRETARY LEON PANETTA DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE: The military will be smaller and leaner. But it will be agile, flexible, rapidly deployable and technologically advanced.

BOWMAN: Smaller means cutting some 100,000 soldiers and Marines over the next five years. And the technology? More drone aircraft, better radars and missiles.

Panetta's second message: Where that force will be deployed.

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DEFENSE: We will rebalance our global posture and presence to emphasize where we think the potential problems will be in the world, and that means emphasizing Asia Pacific and the Middle East.

BOWMAN: The reason: Pentagon officials say China's growing military power could cause friction in the region. So the U.S. will establish more bases there, and conduct military exercises with countries like the Philippines and Australia.

Todd Harrison with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments says covering those long distances in the Pacific is a natural job for the Air Force and Navy.

TODD HARRISON: They're explicitly putting a greater emphasis on air and sea forces at the expense of ground forces.

BOWMAN: The Navy will keep 11 aircraft carriers in its fleet and upgrade submarines. The Air Force will build a new long-range bomber. So not everything's being cut. But the Army is.

General Martin Dempsey, the nation's top military officer, says it makes perfect sense to cut back the size of the Army now that the Iraq War is over and the Afghan War is winding down.

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GENERAL MARK DEMPSEY: We grew the Army to confront a particular kind of conflict to conduct the stability operation's counterinsurgency strategies that we were asked to execute. Those demands are going down. I think it's perfectly reasonable that the force structure of the active Army would go down, as well.

BOWMAN: That smaller Army will go back to basics, though. Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, says the ground forces will even have to train differently to regain core skills neglected during 10 years of insurgent warfare.

LOREN THOMPSON: They spent a lot of time in Iraq and Afghanistan dealing with irregular warfare and not very much time doing their traditional missions, like armored warfare, like amphibious operations.

BOWMAN: Traditional training means relearning armored warfare: tank fights.

The Marines have their own version of the same problem. Retired Marine General Bob Magnus says ground warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan meant it was hard to get any Marine training close to the sea.

GENERAL BOB MAGNUS: There were a whole bunch of second lieutenants, that by the time they became captain, they had never stood on an amphibious ship, much less planned how they were going to get their company into berthing, or how they were going to embark their equipment and supplies.

BOWMAN: The new budget calls for the Marines to return to their traditional role, deployed aboard ships and ready to respond to a crisis anywhere in the world.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: Of course, the military's plans must win support in Congress, and few people know that better than John McCain. Long before he became a leading Republican senator on defense issues, he was actually a military liaison with Congress. Senator McCain told us yesterday he is skeptical of shaving the force and relying too much on drones.

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SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: You don't provide for a secure environment with drones. You kill bad guys, but you don't provide an environment that people can live without fear of reprisal or violence.

INSKEEP: Given the success with drones killing any number of al-Qaida suspects in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it's going to be hard to argue against them.

MCCAIN: History shows there is more misjudgments of the nature of the threat of the future than there was accurate judgments.

INSKEEP: That's Arizona Senator John McCain.

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