The Pentagon on Thursday proposed trimming the Army's size by 13 per cent as the debt-ridden United States winds down a decade of war but vowed new investments to exert power in Asia and the Middle East.
With pressure mounting to balance the US books, President Barack Obama's administration sought a nine percent cut in the 2013 budget compared with last year's request by retiring older ships and planes and pulling back two brigades from Europe.
But the administration called for investment on new projects including a futuristic floating base for special operations and drones and assigning elite Brigade Combat Teams with language training to each region of the world.
"We are at a strategic turning point after a decade of war and substantial growth in defense budgets," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said as he unveiled a preview of the Defense Department's 2013 budget requests.
Panetta vowed to maintain US power in the Middle East and Asia -- where China's growing military has concerned the United States and its allies -- including by modernizing submarines and funding a next-generation bomber.
Panetta called for funding to station littoral combat ships in Singapore and patrol craft in Bahrain, part of the US strategy of forward-deploying its military to such small and strategically placed US allies.
"The force we are building will retain a decisive technological edge, leverage the lessons of recent conflicts and stay ahead of the most lethal and disruptive threats of the future," Panetta told a news conference.
The budget is far from a done deal. Panetta is hoping to ward off calls for steeper cuts backed by some members of his Democratic Party, while Republicans seeking to defeat Obama in November elections have resisted any cuts to the military and instead prefer reductions on social benefits at home.
Panetta proposed a ê613 billion budget for the year starting in October -- a ê525 billion base spending plan and ê88.4 billion for combat operations, primarily in Afghanistan. He said the base budget would rise to ê567 billion by the 2017 fiscal year, by when the United States plans to withdraw most forces from Afghanistan.
He proposed reducing the number of active US Army soldiers from 570,000 in 2010 to 490,000 by 2017 and cutting the Marines' strength from 202,000 to 182,000 over the same period.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that the proposals were "tough" and said he expected more cuts in the future as the Pentagon looks to meet a goal of saving ê259 billion over five years.
"The primary risks lie not in what we can do, but in how much we can do and how fast we can do it," Dempsey said. "As I have said before, we will face greater risks if we do not change from our previous approach."
Among the most ambitious future projects, the budget would fund work on an "afloat forward staging base" -- a giant barge that can transport special operations or other forces at quick notice, reducing demands on aircraft carriers.
Even with cuts, the US military remains far larger than those of other countries. China, which has the world's second largest military budget, said it was devoting 601.1 billion yuan ($91.1 billion) in 2011, although many foreign experts believe that the actual figure is higher.
The United States has 285 ships and a goal of 313 in total, although the proposal calls for the early retirement of seven cruisers.
Panetta also called for getting rid of six of the Air Force's 60 tactical air squadrons -- meaning about 120 planes -- along with one training squadron.
As previously announced, the Pentagon plans to pull out two of four brigades from Europe -- for a total of more than 7,000 troops. The United States now has three brigades in Germany and one in Italy, although it has not decided which to withdraw.
In one proposal that is especially sensitive, Panetta said that Obama would ask Congress to set up a commission to consider closure of military bases "with a goal of identifying additional savings and implementing them as soon as possible."
Panetta promised to maintain military pay raises over the next two years that are in line with the private sector but warned of "more limited" increases afterward. He also called for increases in fees paid for health care, although he said the costs for retirees would remain below private sector plans.
What the US plans to cut -- and add -- to military
Herewith a list of key parts of his 2013 budget priorities:
-- Reductions of some 100,000 troops by September 2017. The US Army would go down from 570,000 active soldiers in 2010 to 490,000, while the Marines' strength would be cut from 202,000 to 182,000 over the same period.
-- Brigade Combat Teams -- elite squads with special training in languages and culture -- would be assigned to every region of the world.
-- Identified as a key priority amid the rise of China. The United States would maintain all bombers and 11 carriers and work on a next-generation bomber that can "penetrate sophisticated enemy defenses and strike over long distances."
-- Funding to forward-station littoral combat ships in Singapore and deploy Marines in Australia. Maintain the more than 75,000 troops in Japan and South Korea.
-- While developing new aircraft, the United States would retire six of the Air Force's 60 tactical air squadrons -- meaning about 120 planes -- along with one training squadron. The United States would also reduce its fleet of transport planes by retiring 27 C-5As and 65 C-130s and not going ahead with 38 C-27s.
-- Of the four US heavy brigades in Europe -- three of which are in Germany and one in Italy -- the United States would pull out two, for a total of around 7,000 troops. But the United States would forward station ballistic-missile ships in Rota, Spain.
-- Seven cruisers and two smaller amphibious ships would be retired early. The Pentagon would call off future purchases of two littoral combat ships and eight joint high speed vessels.
-- Funding to design a floating base for special operations, drones or other forces, improving the military's agility in emergencies and reducing pressure on aircraft carriers.
-- The United States would maintain the three key parts of its nuclear arsenal -- bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and ballistic missile submarines. But the United States would delay by two years a replacement for the Ohio nuclear submarine developed with Britain.
-- One of the few areas of higher funding. The United States would invest both in building both defensive and offensive cyber capabilities.
PERSONNEL AND PROCUREMENT COSTS:
-- Nearly one-quarter of savings in the next five years would come from efficiencies, including streamlined staff, limitations on official travel and lower pay raises for Defense Department civilians.
-- Pay and benefits now account for one-third of defense spending. Troops would enjoy pay raises in line with the private sector for the next two years but increases afterward would be "more limited." Veterans would pay more for health care, although Panetta said costs would remain below private sector plans.