In a wide-ranging speech delivered at National Press Club in Washington on Dec. 18, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta presented a vision of the future that includes a very active role for the U.S. military in a post-Afghanistan world, even as the Pentagon shrinks its end strength and tightens its fiscal belt.
Panetta—whose potential replacement may be announced as early as this week—said that the Pentagon has learned the lesson of past postwar draw-downs, “when deep across-the-board cuts hollowed out the force, and left the military demoralized and unready to carry out the missions assigned to it. Instead, we have set priorities and made tough decisions to build the force of the future,” he said.
The force of the future will be smaller, he said, but it won’t simply draw back to the United States and wait for the next war.
Instead, the U.S. military remain active globally though regular rotations of forces to conduct training and advising missions as well as working to streamline the way in which partner nations buy American-made military gear.
Answering critics who have complained that the United States is shifting its gaze toward the Pacific while the Middle East remains unstable, Panetta said that he recently visited U.S. forces in Kuwait, “which part of a robust Gulf posture that includes roughly 50,000 personnel, dozens of ships, fighters, bombers, and advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms.”
Through Foreign Military Sales and partnering agreements, the United States is working closely with the Gulf States “to boost their capacity in critical areas such as missile defense and countermining,” he said, “which will help reduce the pressure to sustain these large deployments over the long-term.” The United States announced last week that it was sending two Patriot missile batteries and 400 soldiers to Turkey as part of a NATO effort to help protect the Turkish border region against the threat of missiles from Syria. Germany and The Netherlands are also sending to Patriot batteries each to Turkey.
Elsewhere, Panetta also said that the Navy is working to achieve a 60/40 split between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans by 2020, and is “locating our most advanced aircraft in the Pacific – including new deployments of F-22s and MV-22 Ospreys to Japan, and laying the groundwork for the first overseas deployment of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Iwakuni in 2017.”
But more than forward deploying American hardware around the globe, the United States is working to streamline the process by which U.S. companies, or the services, sell equipment to allies. The Foreign Military Sales process needs to become “more responsive and more effective to cut through the bureaucracy and cut through the red tape to be able to provide the assistance that we need to other countries without delay, particularly seeking to boost defense trade with rising powers like Brazil and India,” he said.
The post-Iraq and Afghanistan landscape is unlike previous post-war periods, Panetta said, necessitating this forward-leaning posture. "The threats to our security and our global interests are not receding as they appeared to do in past wars, coming out of World War II, coming out of Korea, coming out of Vietnam, coming out of the end of the Cold War," Panetta said. "The fact is today we still confront these threats in the world, threats that are more complex, more dispersed, and in many ways, more dangerous."