Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - As the Pentagon withdraws from Afghanistan - and more than a decade of ground war - the services have begun an internal battle over the kind of military needed to protect America in the future and the money needed to buy it.
The lines being drawn reflect the differing visions of the threats facing U.S. interests. The Army, according to interviews and internal documents, views another war with U.S. troops on the ground as almost inevitable. The White House, and to a large extent the Navy and Air Force, sees conflicts like those in Iraq and Afghanistan as a thing of the past and the need to focus on the Pacific and the rise of China.
The debate isn't academic. The service chiefs brief Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel each week on what they need to confront future adversaries in closed-door meetings during a budget exercise that takes place every four years. The stakes: billions must be invested wisely to confront the next crisis - terrorism, a nuclear-armed Iran, a cyber attack or something undreamed of. It will require a tradeoff: more troops in case of a new ground war - a strategy that favors the Army and Marine Corps - or more modern weapons and equipment to fend off new threats, an approach more suited to the Navy and Air Force.
One thing is clear, from interviews with senior officers, defense officials and members of Congress, is that all-for-one spirit forged by the military by more than a decade of war is frayed - if not broken.
On Tuesday, Hagel outlined the Pentagon's financial straits and its future in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. He emphasized a point made in President Obama's guidance to the military: there will be no more wars like Iraq or Afghanistan in America's future.
"After more than a decade of costly, controversial and at times open-ended war, America is redefining its role in the world," Hagel said in prepared remarks. "At the same time, more Americans, including elected officials are growing skeptical about our country's foreign engagements and responsibilities."
One of those elected officials is Hagel's boss, Obama. The White House's Defense Strategic Guidance tells the Pentagon that it will no longer maintain troop levels needed to stabilize countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. There's more than war-weariness at stake. Obama has ordered a reduction of $487 billion in defense spending over 10 years. Sequestration, automatic cuts because the White House and Congress failed to make a long-term budget deal, will pare off another $500 billion.
The risks of a smaller Army are not worth taking, said Rep. Buck McKeon, the California Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee. Obama's strategic guidance is wrong and the consequences could be grave, McKeon said.
"He has a totally different view of the world than I have and that many people probably down in the Pentagon have," McKeon said. "People who have been out in the world that have seen threats. People who have been at war, people who have seen people die. It's just a different world."
On Thursday, the chiefs of staff of each service are scheduled to be on Capitol Hill discussing the budget cuts before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"People ought to pay attention," McKeon said. "These guys know what they're talking about and they're not just blowing smoke out there."
Gordon Adams isn't so sure about that. An American University professor and former Pentagon budget official in the Clinton administration, Adams calls the dire forecasts "budget flim flam" the chiefs and some members of Congress employ when money gets tight.
"We're in a squeeze," Adams said. "The squeeze is money and it's coming down."
The Navy and Air Force benefit more from the Obama administration's emphasis on the Pacific where the ocean and vast expanse are better met by ships and planes.
"We believe that the Defense Strategic Guidance is in essence a maritime strategy," said Adm. John Kirby, the Navy's top spokesman. "The Navy sees a lot of opportunity in executing it."
The Army draws the short straw, Adams said.
"The Army will be hit most," Adams said. "Not because it's bad, but because we're out of two wars."
A "brittle" force
The Army has about 530,000 soldiers and would drop to a force of 490,000, under current plans that account for withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. But sequestration, if left in place, could require deeper cuts.
Under that scenario, the Army may not be able to win even one major war if it cuts is force to 420,000 soldiers, Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army's chief of staff has briefed top Pentagon officials, according to documents.
Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who leads NATO's land command in Turkey, said in an email that he's uncomfortable with an Army of fewer than 490,000 soldiers. He referred to former Defense secretary Robert Gates' comment that the United States "has a perfect record of getting it wrong" in predicting future wars.
A sizable force of ground troops is needed not least of all because "all the people in the world live on the land," Hodges said. Numbers are important, too, because it takes time to develop the cadre of leaders needed to win wars.
"You can't just run a draft and conjure up thousands of leaders and soldiers for land conflict and expect it to be immediately effective," he said.
Army officials refer to the smaller force as "brittle," said a senior officer who spoke about the budget deliberations and planning on condition of anonymity. An Army of 420,000 soldiers could handle a conflict with Iran or North Korea and maintain homeland defense, but it would have difficulty sustaining the fight, the officer said.
Some military specialties in high demand but have relatively few soldiers, the officer said. They could be burned out if deployed too often. Examples include Patriot anti-missile units, combat engineers and logistics soldiers, such as those who provide gas for vehicles.
The bottom line, said Thomas Donnelly, a military expert at the American Enterprise Institute, looks grim for the Pentagon.
"It's really bad news for everybody," he said. "Less is less."