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Uncertainty Looms For Pentagon In Obama's Second Term

America's military future is decidedly undecided.

Looming sequestration cuts of massive proportions, coupled with a U.S. troop drawdown in Afghanistan are adding to the boiling partisanship over nominating Chuck Hegel as defense secretary. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that some of the biggest challenges for the Department of Defense come from inside U.S. borders.

Still, the job of the Defense Department is to anticipate what threats to national security might look like, and prepare. With increased nuclear risks from North Korea and Iran, as well as other threats, Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., says we have to be ready all contingencies.

"Now the question is not only how do we structure our conventional forces, but how do we structure those other forces; those cyber forces, asymmetric forces [and] special operators?" says Wittman, who also chairs a House Armed Services subcommittee.

Those questions, he says, will be critical in the years to come as we contemplate the future of the American military.

A Safer World?

The end of every war brings new predicaments in Washington; budgets have to be weighed against real threats, potential threats and threats that no longer exist.

There have been three major defense build-downs since the end of World War II: one after Korea, one after Vietnam and one at the end of the Cold War.

Gordon Adams, a professor of international relations at American University, says history tells us there is plenty of room to cut the defense budget while still preserving safety.

Adams, who was also the senior White House official for national security budgeting during the Clinton administration, tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that defense reduction has been fairly consistent.

"If you start in the year where we were spending the most, and went 10 years out, you found that we had reduced the defense budget 30 percent every single time," Adams says. "Right now, we haven't yet significantly reduced the defense budget at all."

The U.S. defense budget has more than doubled since 2001, Adams says, to roughly $650 billion, with a large part of that due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He says the lesson learned in those conflicts, from a military spending standpoint, was that the U.S. will not use forces for long-term, sustained counterinsurgency operations.

"I think there is a fundamental change in the reality in how the military might be used, which is in much smaller units, in much smaller areas [and] for very temporary periods of time," he says. "All of that says to me it is perfectly safe and sustainable to bring down the size ... quite sharply in the process of doing a build-down."

Hagel's nomination as secretary of defense, Adams says, suggests caution by the administration about how we use the military, as well as a lowering of the defense budget.

"The biggest challenge [Hagel] will face at the Defense Department isn't Iraq, Israel or Afghanistan ... it is managing a defense drawdown," he says.

Despite what's been said about the amount the U.S. spends on defense, Adams says he believes we have "never been safer than we are today."

"We don't face an existential threat [and] we don't face a major power that can extend its power to the United States," he says. "In many respects, in many regions ... this has become a safer — not a more dangerous — world."

The Future Of War

Of course, the character of future wars is notoriously difficult to predict. Mackenzie Eaglen, who studies security at the American Enterprise Institute, says there are areas that need to grow in order to be prepared for future conflicts even as the budget shrinks. These include investing in cyberwarfare, special forces and unmanned systems.

"Whether that's robotics or drones ... that whole class of technology will continue to be in high demand for the U.S. military," Mackenzie tells NPR's Lyden.

Growing our special forces, however, might be difficult during a military build-down, she says. Because special forces often recruit from the standing military, as that force shrinks so will the pool of candidates for special forces training.

A smaller military budget will inevitably mean less money for defense contractors as well. Eric Basu, CEO of Sentek Global, a California cybersecurity company, says he doesn't like the idea of sequestration but he's planning for fewer defense dollars.

"We're going to plan that there may be a period of slow growth," Basu says. "The nice thing about the rational, long-term cuts is they generally give you a little more lead time."

Basu says that if companies can plan in advance, then people can move on to other industries and other companies relatively easily.

Rodney Hudson, who owns a company in Maryland, says his strategy for lean times is to diversify.

"I am looking to other markets like Indonesia, Malaysia, the U.A.E., Turkey [and] the United Kingdom, just to name a few," Hudson says.

So whether we're talking big armies or long wars, a military-industrial complex or a complex military industry, it's Congress that ultimately decides how big our military really needs to be. And battle lines on that are still being drawn.

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