At the top, assuming that President Obama and SecDef Gates get what they want, there are going to be big cuts in major weapons systems: the F-22 [which should be known as the White Elephant fighter], a carrier group, several helicopter, the Future Combat Systems, and missile defense will all take major hits or be eliminated.
This, of course, has the neo-cons up in arms that Obama is soft on terror and intent on appeasing our enemies.
All of which misses the point.
Overall defense spending is not going to go down. So where's the money going?
Read carefully these three paragraphs indirectly quoting Gates at MSNBC (if I could find a direct quote I'd use it):
Gates said his $534 billion budget proposal represents a "fundamental overhaul" in defense acquisition and reflects a shift in priorities from fighting conventional wars to the newer threats U.S. forces face from insurgents in places such as Afghanistan.
The department must ensure it has the right programs and money to "fight the wars we are in today and the scenarios we are most likely to face in the years to come, while at the same time providing a hedge against other risks," Gates said as he revealed details of his budget for the next fiscal year.
The promised emphasis on budget paring is a reversal from the Bush years, which included a doubling of the Pentagon's spending since 2001. Spending on tanks, fighter planes, ships, missiles and other weapons accounted for about a third of all defense spending last year. But Gates noted more money will be needed in areas such as personnel as the Army and Marines expand the size of their forces.
OK, this--not the cuts in the F-22 or the carrier group--is what's critical about the story.
Why? Because you have to think about what it really means.
We're ostensibly withdrawing from Iraq, right? So the war there supposedly has a sunset.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan we've just doubled down, but that would not call for an increase in troop strengths, even if the President gives the generals everything they want.
No, you only ask for the kinds of funding for troops, ammunition, special forces, predator drones if you plan to use them ... extensively.
This suggests that the administration and the Pentagon are contemplating a world in which more Afghanistans are on the table, and where conventional confrontation with the likes of Russia or China are increasingly off of it.
Part of that approach makes tremendous sense: our NATO allies need to take responsibility for defending their own continent; Japan needs to suck it up and deal with North Korea; and we seriously need to stop pretending that it is either (a) likely or (b) worthwhile for us to get drawn into some sort of China-invades-Taiwan scenario. It also makes it less likely for us to get drawn into scenarios in which we launch conventional invasions of other countries.
[Unfortunately, I don't actually think we'll make NATO and Japan carry their own weight, but I'd love to be proven wrong on that one.]
So what are we going to do with our just-as-expensive-but-configured-differently US Armed Forces?
Several kinds of mission/scenarios come to mind:
Light infantry/special forces type interventions in places like the Horn of Africa, northern Mexico, the Balkans, Ecuador....
Here's the thing: for several decades the point of having a massive conventional military establishment [larger in budget terms than the next highest-spending twenty-five nations combined] was deterrence.
The point of investing in building a military capable of extended interventions, unconventional warfare, and counter-insurgency is interventionism.
If you doubt, go here to read about the Pentagon being a little unguarded about its contingency plans, and here for a discussion of what candidate Obama was saying about interventionism.
My difficulty here is that we're pursuing a military built around a doctrine and scenarios, rather than a coherent foreign policy vision. When that happens, you have this tendency to build the kinds of policies you will pursue around the capacities you have.
Don Rumsfeld became infamous for saying something like You go to war with the army you have, which could be inverted into the situation that worries me: You sometimes tend to pick the wars you're going to fight because of the army you have.
I don't doubt that SecDef Gates, Admiral Mullen, General Petraeus, and General Odierno all share a common vision of what US foreign and military policy should be.
What makes me nervous is that I'm not sure that President Obama or Secretary Clinton have figured out precisely who's engineering this train.