Photo of Kate M. Growley, CIPP/G, CIPP/US

In an effort to comply with the 2011 Budget Control Act, the Department of Defense has proposed a “difficult but manageable” budget that will save approximately $259 billion over the next five years, totaling $487 billion in savings within a decade. Coordinated with President Obama’s defense strategy guidance, this new budget provides a glimpse into the government’s evolving national security priorities, focusing on military agility abroad and economic stability at home. 

Among the major takeaways is a strategic shift from an emphasis on land-based conflict to one conducted via sea and air, where the U.S. believes it can best exploit its comparative advantages. In concert with withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army is expected to see eight of its brigade combat teams dissolved. This would be but one component of the suggested 15% reduction in the Army’s total active forces. As the government grows reluctant to engage in large-scale and prolonged military operations, the Marine Corps, too, would not escape unscathed. Its total number faces a 10% reduction, including the loss of at least one infantry regiment, with more potentially on the table. What is more, the procurement of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters would be cut from 42 to 29, along with additional delays. 

In contrast, the Navy and Air Force stand to gain from the DOD’s realignment of priorities. The Navy would retain its current fleet of eleven aircraft carriers and ten air wings, while enhancing its submarine cruise missile capacity. Not to be outdone, the Air Force would continue to receive funding for its new long-range bombers, and drone patrols could increase in capacity from 65 to 85, calling attention to the perceived need for military flexibility.

This brings us to another notable focal point – the DOD’s technological capabilities. In an effort to remain responsive and keep pace with other nations, the government would maintain its financing of unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems on a broader basis, and funding for cyber operations would actually jump – one of the few defense projects to receive such a boon.

Yet Leon Panetta and others have not completely abandoned their previous military champions. For example, in contrast to the diminution of general ground forces, the DOD intends to stay the course concerning its special operations forces. The number of these elite groups has doubled since 2001, and their continuance reflects the Department’s ongoing counterterrorism efforts.