President Barack Obama vowed Thursday the United States will remain the world's pre-eminent military power even as the Pentagon scales back spending, shrinks the Army and Marine Corps and pulls back from Europe, giving Asia a higher priority.
In a rare appearance at the Pentagon, Obama spoke as the military released a strategy that summarizes changes planned in how the military will operate in an era of budget cuts that will amount to billions of dollars.
Obama said the US is "turning a page" after having killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, withdrawn troops from Iraq and begun to wind down the war in Afghanistan. He outlined a vision for the future that would ensure an uncompromised US military strength operating with less money.
Obama announced no new capabilities or defense initiatives. He described a US force that will retain much of its recent focus, with the exception of fighting a large-scale, prolonged conflict like the newly ended Iraq mission or the continuing war in Afghanistan.
His presentation strongly suggests a reduced US military role in Europe, notwithstanding a continuing close relationship with NATO, and says Asia will be a bigger priority. It also emphasizes improving US capabilities in the areas of cyberwarfare, missile defense, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
"Our military will be leaner, but the world must know the United States is going to maintain our military superiority," Obama said, with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey at his side.
Obama said his administration would not repeat the mistakes made after World War II and Vietnam when defense reductions left the military ill-prepared.
"As commander in chief, I will not let that happen again," he said. "Not on my watch."
Both Panetta and Dempsey said they anticipate heavy criticism of their plans, which are meant to guide future defense budgets, including the 2013 spending plan that Obama will submit to Congress in February.
The criticism from Republicans came quickly.
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services, issued a statement saying, "This is a lead-from-behind strategy for a left-behind America." He called it a "retreat from the world in the guise of a new strategy."
Dempsey praised the strategy and the work of crafting it, calling it inclusive and comprehensive.
"It's not perfect," the general said. "There will be people who think it goes too far. Others will say it doesn't go nearly far enough. That probably makes it about right. It gives us what we need."
Obama said the strategy overhaul is designed to contend with hundreds of billions of dollars in budget cuts and refocus the United States' national security priorities after a decade dominated by the post.-Sept. 11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The strategy, devised through a comprehensive review by civilian and military leaders, centered on the military the country needs after the "long wars of the last decade are over," Obama said.
Panetta said that smaller military budgets will mean some trade-offs and that the US will take on "some level of additional but acceptable risk." But Panetta said that at this point in history, in a changing world, the Pentagon would have been forced to make a strategy shift anyway. He says the money crisis merely forced the government's hand.
The president announced that the military will be reshaped over time with an emphasis on countering terrorism, maintaining a nuclear deterrent, protecting the US homeland, and "deterring and defeating aggression by any potential adversary." Those are not new military missions, and Obama announced no new capabilities or defense initiatives.