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Q&A: A Former U.S. Defense Official Explains The New Strategy Shift


U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta details the Defense Strategic Review after it was introduced by U.S. President Barack Obama at the Pentagon on January 5.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta details the Defense Strategic Review after it was introduced by U.S. President Barack Obama at the Pentagon on January 5.

U.S. President Barack Obama has announced a major policy shift in the size and strategic goals of the country's defense forces. The announcement comes at the end of America's long involvement in the Iraq war and within sight of the end of fighting in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL Washington correspondent Heather Maher discussed this policy adjustment with former U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Rudy DeLeon.

Now the senior vice president of national security and international policy at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, DeLeon outlined what the military shift means and why it's happening now.

Rudy DeLeon

Rudy DeLeon

RFE/RL: One of your former roles in the government was as undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, so presumably you know a thing or two about what makes a military force well-prepared. Did the news that the Department of Defense (DoD) plans to cut hundreds of billions of dollars from its budget and shrink the army surprise you?

Rudy DeLeon:
The number that was discussed today, which was a reduction over the next 10 years of $487 billion, has been discussed now for several months in Washington. It's a product of last spring's budget agreement with Congress, so the DoD has been spending most of the summer and fall working on the strategy points [announced today]. So it's been long in coming and was well expected.

RFE/RL: In announcing this strategy shift and force reduction, President Obama said it would allow the United States to "avoid repeating the mistakes of the past when our military was left ill-prepared for the future." What was he referring to, specifically, by that?

DeLeon:
One, I think after two wars and basically a period of unlimited defense spending, there were still critical needs that were required to support the troops in the field, mostly on the technological side. Mostly to counter the IED (Improvised Explosive Device) threat that faced our troops [in Iraq].

So, I think the technology cycle – getting that in sync with what war fighters are actually likely to experience in combat, getting the equipment more quickly out there – I think that's one issue.

I think the other significant [point] that was made in both the president's comments, hinted at by the president, but then specifically by [Defense] Secretary [Leon] Panetta, is that there'll be much more focus on, "What are the military objectives?" And much less focus, and moving away from, the model where you end up occupying the country for 10 years doing stability operations.

RFE/RL: One major element of this military strategy shift is Washington's plan to pay attention to what China has been doing militarily, as well as the threat that Iran poses. That means focusing more naval and air power in the Pacific, as well as the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has been threatening to block. What is China doing to make the United States feel the need to flex its military muscle in that part of the world?

DeLeon:
Well, I think what we're seeing from the Chinese is the development of unique, anti-access strategies -- strategies that are designed to degrade the capabilities that U.S. forces – our ships and our aircraft – have today. They're not ready, but the Chinese are clearly looking at space, at cyber[space], at systems that would degrade the critical role of long-range combat aircraft or nuclear aircraft carriers. But there's a whole strategy that the Chinese have focused on.

And at the same time, America's always been a Pacific power, and the Pacific has now become the principle avenue of commerce for the globe. The Asian marketplace led the financial recovery after the recession started in 2008; it's a tremendous amount of economic activity. And yet while China rises as the leading trading partner in Asia, the United States has remained as the country that has provided great security and stability for the whole region.

So the Pacific and Asia is not a surprise, but there are some unique things that, when Secretary Panetta talked about needing to pivot and adjust, clearly what's going on in Asia was the basis for that comment.

RFE/RL: Finally, how will this U.S. military strategy shift be seen abroad -- not just by U.S. allies but also by governments who are not so friendly toward Washington? Will they see it as another sign -- along with the country's economic woes -- that America's role on the world stage is shrinking? Or will they see it as smart strategic planning for the future?

DeLeon:
Moving to reestablish the strong economic foundation of our country -- which has always been the strong foundation of our national security and our military capabilities -- that is the essential step. But for the adversaries of the United States, the mission against a [Osama] Bin Laden [and] the mission against other terrorists shows that U.S. military capabilities are formidable and that anyone who wishes to do harm to America, or to America's military men and women, needs to really think twice before they would take such actions.
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