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Obama transforms mission as military struggles to remake itself

In two major speeches, President Obama sent strong signals this week about what he envisions for the military in a post-Sept. 11 era, a new path which can be described in a word: downsized.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

President Barack Obama congratulates a graduate as another one celebrates at the United States Naval Academy graduation ceremony in Annapolis, Md., Friday, May 24, 2013.

The president said the United States will have stricter limits on drone attacks overseas and telegraphed a new emphasis on fighting terrorism, based more on focusing on targeted, isolated threats and less on an over-arching projection of force.

Just as the government’s mission is changing, so is that of the U.S. military.

Both are shrinking in scale.

During Obama’s four and a half years in White House, military spending has declined and the military active duty force has shrunk by about 29,000. American soldiers and Marines are no longer engaged in combat in Iraq and in Afghanistan their presence will soon dwindle to a residual force.  “A perpetual war -- through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments -- will prove self-defeating,” the president said in a speech Thursday at the National Defense University in Washington.

This weekend some who died in those conflicts will be commemorated at Arlington National Cemetery and other cemeteries across the nation.

While saying that “our nation is still threatened by terrorists,” Obama contended that “we have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11.”

As Obama has shown by his aversion to any involvement in the Syrian civil war and by his tightly calibrated “lead from behind” strategy to support the overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi in Libya, he’s determined to not be the president that leads America into another traditional ground combat war.

Saying America has reached a "crossroads," President Obama laid out clearer, more narrow guidelines for deadly drone strikes. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

In his speech Thursday he warned that “putting boots on the ground” in Syria or elsewhere would lead to “more U.S. deaths, more Black Hawks down… and an inevitable mission creep in support of such raids that could easily escalate into new wars.”

Obama’s risk aversion contrasts with a leading Democrat of the Clinton administration, Madeleine Albright. In 1993 Albright, then the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, urged intervention in the Balkans war, challenging the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and Vietnam War veteran) Gen. Colin Powell: ''What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?''

Obama reminds Americans of the costs of war – especially measured in the things that military outlays might have purchased -- lamenting that the dollars spent in Iraq and Afghanistan limited “our ability to nation-build here at home. “

He cautioned Thursday that “unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight….”

Yet in some ways, while some of the threats to the nation are new, the U.S. military in the Obama era remains much as it was in the Bush or Clinton eras. In an era of lone-wolf terrorists and suicidal jihadists, the United States is still equipped for an old-style war against nation-states on sea or on land.

Even with the sequester cutting about 8 percent in available funds for the Pentagon this year, military outlays will amount to about 18 percent of all federal outlays.

According to the London-based think tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the U.S. defense budget “still equals that of the next 14 nations combined.”

While he is looking forward to an era when American soldiers won’t be in combat, Obama still committed to expensive investments in weapons and hardware.

In his speech to the class of 2013 at the Naval Academy Friday, Obama promised “a shipbuilding plan that puts us on track to achieve a 300-ship fleet” over the next 30 years, “with capabilities that exceed the power of the next dozen navies combined.” 

In his commencement address at the United States Naval Academy, President Obama touched upon the growing military sexual assault cases, telling graduates, "We have to be determined to stop these crimes. They've got no place in the greatest military on earth."

And then there’s the cost of the hardware purchased over the past ten years.

One telling example of maintenance cost was supplied at a hearing Wednesday of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on defense.

The MRAP is a heavy Army vehicle developed in a crash program in 2007 to help prevent the deaths and mayhem caused by improvised explosive devices in Iraq. Each MRAP costs up to $1 million.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno told the Senate subcommittee that “we have 21,000 MRAPs today in our inventory,” but only 4,000 will be deployed with active Army units. Another 4,000 will be held reserve “in case we need them for other contingencies.” That leaves an excess of 13,000 vehicles.

“We can't afford to sustain 21,000 MRAPs because it would be in addition to all the other equipment that we have to sustain,” Odierno told the senators. “We think by keeping 8,000 of them, we can fund that, we can sustain that.”

At the same time as taxpayers pay for maintaining MRAPS and building ships, Obama presides over the military health care and retirement system, one of the largest social welfare organizations in the world.

As long ago as 2008, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned Congress that “health care is eating us alive. Our health care budget in 2001 was $19 billion; our request this year is for almost $43 billion.” And Gates noted in that testimony that in a few years, nearly two-thirds of Pentagon health care expenditures would be for military retirees, not for the active or reserve force.

The cost pressure comes not just from health care: the Congressional Budget Office recently reported that spending for military retirement pay and survivors’ annuities will rise by more than 30 percent over the next decade – even though the number of military retirees and their survivors will remain flat over that period. Most of the growth will occur because benefits are adjusted for inflation.

Even without “perpetual war,” there will be long-term costs to maintaining a large military.

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