Building a U.S. military for the future

In its overall approach and philosophy, the military portion of President Barack Obama's budget proposal is sound. It would begin to downsize military personnel, while at the same time emphasizing special operations and other forces that can move quickly to hot points across the globe. This transition reflects the world as it is.

Current geopolitical circumstances make it less likely the United States will need massive, occupying armies. Given that assessment by Pentagon officials, it does not make fiscal or military sense to maintain a large land-war defense structure. Active duty Army personnel would drop to 450,000, compared to an Iraq War peak of 570,000. Other branches would see less precipitous reductions.

Of course, circumstances can change. The future has always proved difficult to predict. If, heaven forbid, a large Army is needed it can be raised. The nation has done it before.

Under the proposal, overall spending remains relatively the same, dipping slightly from $496 billion to $495.6 billion. It is more a shift in priorities than a retrenchment, moving funding to training and technology that support special ops and force agility.

After years of steady and often dramatic growth, holding steady would be a fiscal victory, but one that seems unlikely given the criticism of the defense spending proposal, particularly from the right.

Governors, not surprisingly, object to proposed cuts in National Guard forces, from 350,000 to 335,000 by 2017, including about 500 fewer positions in Connecticut. Yet this makes sense as the nation moves from a permanent war footing.

The National Guard should return to its primary role as meeting domestic needs, rather than supplementing Army and Marine forces on foreign soils.

On the economic front, southeastern Connecticut stands to benefit in that attack submarines will continue to play a critical role in a restructured and refocused military. The budget would allocate $6.3 billion to purchase two Virginia-class submarines in 2015 and provide the materials to continue two submarines per year construction in future years. That will mean a continuing strong jobs outlook for Electric Boat in Groton, which constructs the submarines in a partnership with Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia.

The conventional war fighting capability of the submarines can serve as a counterforce to China's designs on increasing its naval presence in the Pacific. The Virginia-class submarines can also move quickly to trouble spots, using cruise missiles to deliver pinpoint attacks. At the same time, their electronic intelligence gathering capacity and ability to stealthily deliver special operations forces make them a great asset to modern warfare.

Striking a discordant note is a proposal to save a relatively small amount of money, in the scheme of overall defense spending, by reducing subsidies to military base commissaries. These commissaries, which the Defense Commissary Agency estimates save users about one-third on their shopping bills, help stretch the budgets of active-duty families and retired military personnel. The $1 billion in estimated savings over three years is not worth the added difficulty it would cause these families in trying to make ends meet.

The final defense budget will likely have little resemblance to the working document submitted by the president, but Congress would do well to endorse its intent to build a smaller, more nimble and technologically advanced military fighting force.

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