Budget proposals published by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) on 13 February were pivotal in three ways. They came as America disengaged from two long-running wars; as it sought to shift the strategic balance of its forces away from Europe and towards the Asia-Pacific; and as the Pentagon sought to enact significant spending cuts mandated by Congress. Since the themes had been indicated in previous announcements, the main interest was in the detail of the many cuts proposed for the military and its equipment programs. However, the budget's publication was the beginning rather than the end of the process: it shifted battles about specific reductions beyond the Pentagon hierarchy and into the political arena.
U.S. forces have been engaged in continuous combat operations since October 2001. The last American troops left Iraq in December 2011, while combat deployments to Afghanistan are due to end by 2015. The end of these operations is, in the words Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, a 'strategic turning point' that gives the DoD a chance to reassess force structures, roles and inventories. That U.S. forces would become smaller was not in doubt. They had been expanded since 2001, as the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq turned into long-term missions. But new strategic guidance issued in January said forces would no longer be sized 'to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations'. Rather, the aim was to have a joint force that was smaller, leaner, agile and flexible, able to work within a range of operational concepts and environments. The services would be expected to retain the expertise of a decade of war, including training coalition forces in counter-insurgency, and they would be 'able to reconstitute quickly or grow capabilities as needed'.
The proposed changes were framed by January's examination of strategic priorities, under which the U.S. military will 'rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region', though the Middle East will remain a key area. There will be a reduced emphasis on Europe. Maintaining and developing security partnerships is seen as a way of 'sharing the costs and responsibilities of global leadership'. Planned reductions, however, need to be put into context: while it is true that, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in 2011, 'a smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things', American forces will still be the most capable and expensive in the world.
Numbers in perspective
As part of the DoD's contribution to national debt reduction, the Budget Control Act of August 2011 mandated the Pentagon to reduce defense spending from the amounts that had been envisaged in the FY2012 budget by $259.4 billion over five years and $487bn over ten years (see graphic). Cuts now being planned, therefore, represent downward revisions to previously formulated spending plans for FY2013–17, at an average of $51.2bn or 8.7% per year. However, the actual fall in the defense budget for FY2013, from the budgeted level for FY2012, will be only $5.2bn to $525.4bn, a nominal-terms decline of 0.98%, or a real-terms reduction of 2.02% at constant 2011 prices. After FY2013, the base defense budget is set to rise again at an average real annual rate of 0.9% until FY2017. Meanwhile, funds allocated in FY2013 for overseas contingency operations, mainly the war in Afghanistan, are proposed to fall by 23.1% in nominal terms or 23.9% in real terms to $88.5bn. Adding this figure to the base budget, the overall amount to be spent on defense is set to fall from $645.7bn in FY2012 to $613.9bn in FY2013.
The U.S. Army and Marine Corps, which have expanded in numbers over the past ten years, will be hit hardest by the cuts: over the next six years the army will contract from 570,000 to 490,000 regulars, while the Marines are reducing from 202,000 to 182,000. Although both services plan to retain the capability to restore themselves to their former size, by retaining more mid-grade officers and non-commissioned officers than the force structure requires, the reduced size of the regular establishment will increase the importance of the reserves. Thus the army and marine reserves will remain at their current sizes, and the Army National Guard will reduce personnel by less than 1%.