US military shrinking as Pentagon declares war on costs

US DEFENCE Secretary Leon Panetta is to reveal his strategy to guide the Pentagon in cutting hundreds of billions of dollars from its budget and, with it, the Obama administration's vision of the military America needs to meet 21st-century threats.

US DEFENCE Secretary Leon Panetta is to reveal his strategy to guide the Pentagon in cutting hundreds of billions of dollars from its budget and, with it, the Obama administration's vision of the military America needs to meet 21st-century threats.

In a shift of doctrine driven by fiscal reality and a deal last year that kept the US from defaulting on its debts, Mr Panetta is expected this week to outline plans for carefully shrinking the military and make it clear the Pentagon will not maintain the ability to fight two sustained ground wars. Instead, he will say the military will be large enough to fight and win one major conflict, while also being able to "spoil" a second adversary's ambitions in another part of the world and conduct a number of other, smaller operations, such as disaster relief or enforcing a flight exclusion zone.

Pentagon officials are in final deliberations about potential cuts to virtually every important area of spending: the nuclear arsenal, warships, combat aircraft, salaries and retirement and health benefits.

With the war in Iraq over and the one in Afghanistan winding down, Mr Panetta is weighing how to significantly shrink America's ground forces.

There is broad agreement that $US450 billion ($A437 billion) in defence cuts over a decade the amount the White House and Pentagon agreed to is acceptable. But there is intense debate about an additional $US500 billion in cuts that may have to be made if Congress follows through with deeper reductions.

Many who are more worried about cuts, including Mr Panetta, acknowledge Pentagon personnel costs are unsustainable and generous retirement benefits may have to be scaled back to save crucial weapons programs. The chief target for weapons cuts is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, one of the most expensive weapons programs in history.

The Pentagon has plans to spend nearly $US400 billion on 2500 of the stealth jets up to 2035, but reductions are expected. The debate centres on how necessary the advanced stealth fighter really is and whether missions could be carried out with the less-expensive F-16s.

The main advantage of the F-35 is its ability to evade radar systems an attribute that is important only if the US anticipates a war with another technologically advanced military.

The looming cuts inevitably force decisions on the scope and future of the US military.

If, for example, the Pentagon saves $US7 billion over a decade by cutting the number of aircraft carriers to 10 from 11, would there be sufficient forces in the Pacific to counter an increasingly bold China?

If the Pentagon saves nearly $US150 billion in the next 10 years by shrinking the army to 483,000 troops from 570,000, would the US be prepared for a lengthy ground war in Asia?

The calculations exclude the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which will go down over the next decade.

US military deaths in the Afghanistan war fell in 2011 for the first time in four years, it has been revealed. The number totalled 405, down 18 per cent from 2010, Pentagon reports compiled by USA Today showed.

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