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Make no mistake: we’re entering a new world of military planning. Admittedly, the latest proposed Pentagon budget manages to preserve just about every costly toy-cum-boondoggle from the good old days when MiGs still roamed the skies, including an uncut nuclear arsenal. Eternally over-budget items like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, cherished by their services and well-lobbied Congressional representatives, aren’t leaving the scene any time soon, though delays or cuts in purchase orders are planned. All this should reassure us that, despite the talk of massive cuts, the US military will continue to be the profligate, inefficient and remarkably ineffective institution we’ve come to know and squander our treasure on.
Still, the cuts that matter are already in the works, the ones that will change the American way of war. They may mean little in monetary terms—the Pentagon budget is actually slated to increase through 2017—but in imperial terms they will make a difference. A new way of preserving the embattled idea of an American planet is coming into focus and one thing is clear: in the name of Washington’s needs, it will offer a direct challenge to national sovereignty.
The Marines began huge amphibious exercises—dubbed Bold Alligator 2012—off the East Coast of the United States last week, but someone should IM them: it won’t help. No matter what they do, they are going to have fewer boots on the ground in the future, and there’s going to be less ground to have them on. The same is true for the Army (even if a cut of 100,000 troops will still leave the combined forces of the two services larger than they were on September 11, 2001). Fewer troops, fewer full-frontal missions, no full-scale invasions, no more counterinsurgency: that’s the order of the day. Just this week, in fact, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta suggested that the schedule for the drawdown of combat boots in Afghanistan might be speeded up by more than a year. Consider it a sign of the times.
Like the F-35, American mega-bases, essentially well-fortified American towns plunked down in a strange land, like our latest “embassies” the size of lordly citadels, aren’t going away soon. After all, in base terms, we’re already hunkered down in the Greater Middle East in an impressive way. Even in post-withdrawal Iraq, the Pentagon is negotiating for a new long-term defense agreement that might include getting a little of its former base space back, and it continues to build in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Washington has typically signaled in recent years that it’s ready to fight to the last Japanese prime minister not to lose a single base among the three dozen it has on the Japanese island of Okinawa.