WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is rewriting its defense strategy to absorb hundreds of billions of dollars in defense budget cuts while scaling back the longstanding Pentagon goal of being ready to fight two wars simultaneously.
Underscoring the political dimension of Washington's debate over defense savings, President Barack Obama planned to make a rare appearance at the Pentagon today to outline the new strategy. The administration says tighter budgets are a must but will not come at the cost of sapping the strength of a military in transition after a decade at war.
The strategy, to be outlined at a news conference also attended by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Joint Chiefs chairman, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, is not expected to radically alter defense priorities. It may set the stage, however, for expected cutbacks in Europe and big weapons programs.
It also will move the U.S. further from its longstanding goal of being able to successfully fight two major regional wars -- like the 1991 Gulf War to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait or a prospective ground war in Korea -- at the same time. This takes into account a bigger focus on immediate threats like cyber warfare and terrorism.
Advertising executive Peter Wertimer, chairman of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce's Military Policy and Defense Issues Council, said while the looming cuts will bring widespread pain, "every installation and every region will not be downsized at the same percentage."
The Lowcountry, whose economy remains heavily dependent on the military, could even flourish, thanks to local defense units like the high-tech Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command
Center Atlantic, or SPAWAR, in Hanahan.
"This is a time of information dominance and cyber security is top of mind in terms of the threats we'll face in the 21st century," Wertimer said. "So SPAWAR is more likely to grow than it is to get much smaller."
In a presidential election year, the strategy gives Obama a rhetorical tool to defend his Pentagon budget-cutting choices. Republican contenders for the White House already have criticized Obama on a wide range of national security issues, including missile defense, Iran and planned reductions in ground forces.
Obama also wants the new strategy to mark a turning point in his stewardship of defense policy, which has been burdened throughout his presidency by the wars he inherited and their drag on the budget.
The administration and Congress already are trimming defense spending to reflect the closeout of the Iraq war and the drawdown in Afghanistan. The massive $662 billion defense budget planned for next year is $27 billion less than Obama wanted and $43 billion less than Congress gave the Pentagon this year.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Wednesday that Obama was closely involved in the defense strategy review, meeting six times since September with top defense officials, including Panetta and Dempsey. Vietor said the review established priorities to ensure that defense spending reductions are "surgical."
The likelihood of deep cuts at the Pentagon already has hit home with at least one local defense-related business. Armored vehicle maker Force Protection Inc. cited the projected decline in military spending as one of the main reasons it put itself up for sale. The Summerville-based manufacturer, which employs about 600 workers at its Ladson plant, was acquired by General Dynamics Corp in a $360 million sale last month.
As for Obama's decision to make a personal appearance at the Pentagon, Vietor said, "It's a sign of how personally engaged he is in this process and the level of importance he puts in shaping our priorities for the next decade."
The notion of sizing and shaping the U.S. military to be able to fight two major regional wars had its origins in efforts by the Pentagon to design a post-Cold War military after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
A decade later, senior U.S. officials were questioning the rationale for maintaining a two-war strategy. In June 2001, for example, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Congress the strategy was "not working." But a short time later the U.S. was in fact fighting two wars -- in Afghanistan and Iraq -- although neither fit strictly the definition of wars against nation-state aggressors.
Factors guiding the Obama administration's approach to reducing the defense budget are not limited to war-fighting strategy. They also include judgments about how to contain the growing cost of military health care, pay and retirement benefits. The administration is expected to form a commission to study the issue of retirement benefits, possibly led by a prominent retired military officer.
A prominent theme of the Pentagon's new strategy is expected to be what Panetta has called a renewed commitment to security in the Asia-Pacific region.
A more immediate concern is Iran, not only for its threats to disrupt the flow of international oil but also for its nuclear ambitions.
Brendan Kearney and John P. McDermott of The Post and Courier staff contributed to this report.