Defense spending: The Army's next big fight will be protecting its budget from Leon Panetta and the pols.

Military analysis.
July 5 2011 5:02 PM

The Army's Next Big Fight

Protecting its own budget from Panetta and the pols.

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A little more than one-third of this amount, $110 billion, is related directly to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this sum is drawing down along with the troops. But that leaves just under two-thirds, $204 billion, for operations and maintenance that would be going on anyway.

That's a lot of money, considerably more than the amount for personnel. And in one sense it's the easiest money to cut. (Things like nuts, bolts, and bullets aren't manufactured by big, politically influential defense contractors.) But at his July 1 swearing-in ceremony, Panetta pledged there would be "no hollow force" on his watch as defense secretary. A "hollow force" is the phrase often used to describe the military of the 1970s in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, when the Pentagon continued to buy big-ticket weapons systems but not the bits and pieces that made them run, shoot, or fly. Panetta will no doubt take a scalpel to the O&M budget—as a former White House budget chief, he knows it's the best place for bureaucrats and legislators to hide pet projects—but he probably won't take an ax; he seems more disposed to focus on protecting these accounts from potential ravagers.

And so that leaves, again, the personnel budget—with a special focus on the Army personnel budget. Cutting Air Force or Navy personnel would mean getting rid of airplanes or ships, a move that would sire a separate set of controversies. (Then again, it's likely that Panetta will cancel or cut back some planes and ships, if just to spread the pain; the Air Force and Navy's troubled Joint Strike Fighter, aka the F-35 stealth aircraft, is a likely candidate. * But there will be limits here, as his predecessor, Robert Gates, already cut a few dozen systems, and further cuts would spark political fights, especially given the already-high unemployment rate.)

By contrast, cutting Army and, to some extent, Marine personnel would mean erasing brigades or divisions from the roster and warehousing their weapons—which could then be transferred to other units as training or replacement gear, for more savings still.

None of this is necessarily to say that the Army or Marines should be slashed—only that they almost certainly will be, given the traditional end-of-wars syndrome, the enormous pressures on the federal budget, and (a new factor) an emerging coalition of anti-war Democrats and anti-spending, isolationist Republicans.

In any case, look very soon for Panetta to order a study on the future roles and missions of the Army and Marines (or perhaps of all the military services). Look for every national-security think tank in Washington to get in on the action and do the same. And look for the Joint Chiefs to "war game" the various options laid out on the table—and to publicize far and wide the most doom-laden scenarios.

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Gens. Dempsey and Odierno, the new JCS chairman and Army chief of staff, could play a critical role here, one way or the other.

In 2001, when George W. Bush became president, and his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, stormed into the Pentagon determined to cut the size of the Army by 20 percent, it was Odierno—then a one-star general in charge of "force management" in the office of the Army's deputy chief of staff—who prepared and delivered the briefing that persuaded Rumsfeld not to order the cuts after all.

In the decade since, Odierno has served as division commander, corps commander, and finally commander of all U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq—before returning to the States to head the Joint Forces Command, which was in charge of planning and monitoring the readiness and flow of troops and materiel to U.S. commanders worldwide.

Times, of course, have changed. In 2001, the U.S. military—and especially the Army—was about to embark on two wars that turned out to be more protracted and costly than anyone had imagined. Now, in 2011, the military is moving away from those wars and getting involved in some new ones that don't involve much in the way of U.S. ground troops at all.

The question is this: Will Odierno reprise his earlier role and defend the Army's status quo against an assault from within—or will he build on his higher rank, and his considerable experiences, to help reshape the Army into a force suitable for what might be called the "post-post-Cold War era," an era after the two surges of Iraq and Afghanistan, an era of armed drones, tight budgets, a war-weary public, yet instability and dangers nonetheless?

Correction, July 6, 2011: This article originally referred to the Joint Strike Fighter as the Joint Strategic Fighter. (Return to the corrected sentence.)