Pentagon cuts: What will the new US military look like?

US marines patrolled in Haditha, near Baghdad, in 2005 With the war in Iraq ended, thousands of US troops are expected to be axed under the Pentagon review

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The Pentagon strategy review announced by President Barack Obama leaves behind nearly as many questions as answers about what the US military footprint will actually look like in years to come.

Even though the direct budget consequences will not be forthcoming for another month, it is possible to predict who will be on the ground where in the months ahead.

The stated US intention to move away from counter-insurgency theory, land invasions and ground occupations is real.

After 9/11, the US military grew by over 100,000, chiefly in the Army and Marines, to manage the rigours of two Middle East occupations and the theory - advanced by so-called counter-insurgency experts - that very high ratios of US troops to occupied populations would be necessary.

But the sobering modesty of results on the ground, and the exhausting of US resources, have put an end to that. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the 2011 graduating class at West Point, the country's oldest military academy, that any future leader who contemplates sending young men and women to occupy a Middle Eastern society "should have his head examined".

The Pentagon's proposal thus far cuts ground troop levels back to 520,000. Others have proposed going further, back to the level of 10 September 2001. As Charles Knight, of the Project on Defense Alternatives, has noted, at those levels a large occupation requires activating the National Guard and Reserves - and demands a higher level of societal commitment, even from an all-volunteer force.

The trend toward irregular operations featuring special forces, drones and state-of-the-art surveillance technology will accelerate.

President Obama's stress on being able "to operate in environments where adversaries try to deny us access" and the report's affirmation that the US will "directly strike the most dangerous" terrorists "when necessary" are reminders, if any were needed, that so-called kinetic action - violence - is not going away just because large-scale invasions are.

Pentagon technology reporter Spencer Ackerman has suggested there will be a heightened emphasis on intelligence and "spy tools" including drones, lethal special operations forces, offensive cyber weapons and jammers.

The president's 2009 Prague pledge to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US strategy, and move toward their elimination, will begin to have practical force.

Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists describes the future of the nuclear weapons complex as "cautious but suggestive". The strategy review document maintains a nuclear arsenal but hints at reductions, saying "it is possible our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force".

What might this mean in practice? In the near-term, disappointment for those on the US right who have advocated aggressive investment in new nuclear bombs and even a return to testing. In the longer-term, many Pentagon generals, especially those not in submarine, missile or nuclear bomber commands, are willing to consider shrinking the nuclear "triad". There is also a raft of influential players in the nuclear sphere who have been eager to retire the weapons.

The US footprint in Europe - and elsewhere - will be smaller and more diffuse, but still quite visible.

The strategy review alludes to "a strategic opportunity to rebalance the US military investment in Europe". At the same time the US is beefing up deployments and naval facilities in the Persian Gulf and stationing a first 2,500 Marines in Australia. Those enabling presences - which allow much larger contingents to arrive and redeploy as necessary - seem likely to be the wave of the future. And the recent dependence on carrier groups in the Mediterranean and on Nato airbases in southern Europe for Nato's Libya operation are a reminder that Europe remains an important site for such footholds.

In other words, change will be gradual - the build-down currently proposed is 8%. The post-Cold War change (that began under Ronald Reagan) was closer to 25% and matches the reductions Europe has seen in recent years. As President Obama said at today's briefing, the US military will still be larger than the next 10 countries combined.

Heather Hurlburt is executive director of the National Security Network in Washington, DC. From 1995-2001, she served in the Clinton administration as speechwriter to the president, and speechwriter for Secretaries of State Madeline Albright and Warren Christopher.

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