The Pentagon budget which will be released on Thursday reflects a broad attempt to prepare for the threats facing the country after Iraq and Afghanistan in the new era of fiscal austerity, the nation’s top military officers said in an exclusive interview.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told National Journal that the new budget was not an attempt to discard controversial strategies like the manpower-heavy counterinsurgency, or COIN, used in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, he said, it was an effort to rebalance the forces so the military can carry out growing numbers of targeted missions, such as yesterday’s Special Operations raid into Somalia, as well as future wars that may bear little resemblance to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’ve got to learn the lessons of the last 10 years of war,” Dempsey said on Thursday. “This isn’t about taking COIN or taking stability ops and putting it on a shelf and saying, ‘Wow, I hope we’re not ever going to have to do that again.’ This is about taking the lessons that we’ve learned and making sure that they permeate.”
That strategy will be reflected in the budget details to be revealed later on Thursday at the Pentagon by Dempsey and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, including an expected call to reduce the Army and Marine Corps by more than 100,000 troops.
A senior U.S. official said the budget would also call for increasing drone forces by 30 percent and growing the nation’s elite Special Operations forces by 10 percent, from 63,750 this year to 70,000. It is the latest detail to emerge after several weeks of slow administration leaks and announcements revealing the Pentagon's plans, hoping to take the sting out of the austerity punch.
President Obama announced a new strategy at the Pentagon leaning toward modern, flexible counterterrorism forces requiring more intelligence and specified assets. Panetta traveled to the USS Enterprise to state that he would not cut an aircraft carrier for budget savings and strongly supported the continuation of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter -- both weapons considered more for traditional large-scale conflicts that were considered possible targets by worried industry watchers.
Dempsey, in the past year, rose rapidly from commander of the military's training and doctrine command to Army chief of staff before succeeding Adm. Mike Mullen as chairman. As a relative Washington unknown, he has been largely left out of criticism from Congress and conservative voices targeting Obama for the Defense Department’s efforts to trim $480 billion in future growth and its announced strategy to downsize the force, though the chairman supports both efforts as necessary amid changing global security threats and economic realities.
Dempsey said he knows he will have to sell the president’s plan both to the military and Congress this year. He would not reveal budget specifics in advance of the official review, but he said he feels comfortable in his new role and is preparing for the political battles to come by avoiding extensive overseas travel specifically to stay and build relationships in Washington. But the triangulation of the military, White House, and Congress was, he said, “not mine to manage.”
Dempsey acknowledged that he already has faced stark “confrontation” from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who questioned the chairman’s judgment at a hearing about the end of the Iraq war, but that he was unshaken.
“I don’t take it personally,” he said. “I was selected and told to provide my best personal military advice and also represent the views of the Joint Chiefs, and I do that dutifully.”
For now, Dempsey is focused on giving his best “personal military advice” to the White House and Capitol Hill and the inherent risks involved.
“At some point, if either of those bodies decide to take that risk on themselves, having been given my advice true to my moral compass … you know, I prefer not to get yelled at, or be accused of having bad judgment, or ... in some way, have my integrity challenged,” he said.
“It’s not what’s best for anybody in particular, it’s what’s best for the country and the Armed Forces. That’s my responsibility.”