The Defense Department's new strategic guidance, "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense," released this month offers a modest foothold in the struggle to reverse the ever-upward swing of U.S. military spending. It takes into account new realities at home and abroad.
Those who believe U.S. security can be best won through a foreign policy of peace and cooperation will use these changes to work for a much more profound downsizing of our country's military footprint and a shift of resources to civilian needs.The document unveiled Jan. 5 by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and President Obama moves away from long boots-on-the-ground wars and from earlier U.S. administrations' emphasis on Europe and Russia. It somewhat moderates earlier documents' aggressive tone.
Along with a cutback in military forces, it moves away from the idea that the U.S. can fight two wars at the same time. (It projects instead one war and smaller operations.) Cuts may take place in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. But it also confirms developments that have been in the works for some time. Along with a shift toward greater use of "special operations," drones and similar means, a move is taking place toward a new cold war with China. Citing a "changing geopolitical environment" and "our changing fiscal circumstances," the document sets out the "projected security environment and the key military missions" as a "blueprint for the Joint Force in 2020."
U.S. military forces are to "protect" a "global commons" of sea, air and space - "those areas beyond national jurisdiction that constitute the vital connective tissue of the international system"- where goods must circulate freely to ensure "global security and prosperity."
The new focus is on the Asia-Pacific region and most especially the South China Sea, the transit route for most oil going to Asian nations.
U.S. influence in the area is to be a top priority in the face of "China's emergence as a regional power."
Calling China - and Iran - "sophisticated adversaries" who will seek to counter U.S. global reach with electronic and cyber warfare and other "asymmetric" means, the document calls for better missile defenses, a new stealth bomber, and gaining "critical space-based capabilities."
The Chinese weren't slow to respond. In an editorial the next day,the government publication People's Daily Online said, " The U.S. must realize that it cannot stop the rise of China and that being friendly to China is in its utmost interests."
Citing "economic competition" as the arena in which the two nations should engage, People's Daily said, "China should try to avoid a new cold war with the U.S., but by no means should it give up its peripheral security in exchange for the U.S.' ease in Asia."
Indeed, the intertwining of the two economies - and the unwisdom of the U.S. stirring up a hornet's nest with China - is shown by the fact that China, the largest foreign holder of U.S. government securities, now holds one-eighth of all U.S. public debt.
Some commentators have also wryly noted that if deprived of Chinese-made components, much U.S. high tech equipment would quickly become non-functional.
Of course, the interest in the Asia Pacific region isn't new. As international affairs commentator Conn Hallinan notes, the U.S. has been engaged in the area for over a century, and has a broad network of bases and more military personnel there than any nation except China.
Another noteworthy aspect of the new defense guidance is its emphasis on space-based and cyber capabilities.
The document says "reliable information and communication networks and assured access to cyberspace and space" are vital to modern armed forces, and investment in "advanced capabilities" is essential for "resiliency in cyberspace and space."
A rising tide of allegations has focused on Chinese cyber attacks. But in another article,Hallinan suggests the issue may be reminiscent of the "bomber gap" and "missile gap" of old U.S.-Soviet Cold War days, that served to fuel up U.S. military industries.
In other areas, the guidance says U.S. will partner with Gulf Cooperation Council countries including Saudi Arabia to keep Iran from getting nuclear arms and destabilizing the region, and of course will support Israel's "security."
The U.S. will work with NATO on a "Smart Defense" cooperative approach to "21st century challenges."
Though military and diplomatic efforts will seek to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, the document doesn't talk about nuclear disarmament, which Washington has long pledged to pursue.
The practical implications of all this will be seen in 2013 budget projections to be unveiled later this month.
But expected cutbacks, compared to earlier projections, come to $450 billion over the next decade, with another $500 billion called for under last summer's Budget Control Act.
Critics from the right say they fear deteriorating U.S. capabilities. At the same time, many experts say the cuts are far smaller than those many other government programs face, and much smaller than 20th century military cutbacks.
And in fact, President Obama acknowledged last week that while growth will be slower, the military budget will still grow over the next decade. Even with the cuts, he said, U.S. military spending will still be greater than that of the next 10 countries combined.
These are contradictory developments, but they hold new possibilities to work for real security at home and abroad.
Photo: A US flag is flown at half staff behind a Navy memorial statue of a homecoming in Virginia Beach , Va., Aug. 8, 2011. Navy Seal Team Six whose team members were involved in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan, is based in Virginia Beach. Steve Helber/AP