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Saturday, January 19, 2013 - 12:00pm
(CNN) — The military is facing $500 billion in mandatory budget cuts ... that's if Congress doesn't step in to act.
After months of dire predictions, the reality of cutting troops is closer to becoming a reality.
The war in Iraq is over, the war in Afghanistan is wrapping up, but the Pentagon is still spending nearly $650 billion this year. The challenge: reshaping America's military.
"I think the fundamental challenges are two. One is to fit what is now a ten pound defense program into what is likely to be a five pound budget bag. And second is the administration has really reordered the priorities for defense,” said Andrew Krepenevich, a military budget analyst .
Outgoing defense secretary Leon Panetta warned, that pivot is essential, "Increasing military spending by rising powers in the Asia Pacific region and turmoil across the Middle East and North Africa are altering the strategic landscape."
It starts with downsizing the army. Tens of thousands of troops may be cut from the force over the next several years. With no large conventional ground wars, a smaller army will have specific units to be ready to go to particular regions such as Africa or Asia.
Krepenevich says it makes sense."Instead of sending large numbers of ground forces to conduct stability operations as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should take a more indirect approach and that is we should be willing to train and advise and equip local forces as opposed to sending our own forces in."
But when the US needs firepower on the ground: its likely special forces may be first up. Successes in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen and helicopter raids against terrorists in Somalia have underscored the Obama administration's belief small, lethal, elite units are a crucial advantage.
But the ultimate driver of a reshaped military and a new generation of weapons: money. The era of expensive fighter jets and multi ton battle tanks may be ebbing. More drones, robots and cyber warfare systems will be part of the mix.
For now, the military hopes to be able to stick to the restructuring plan. But if Congress cannot enact a new budget and the $500 billion in mandatory cuts are then enacted, well then Defense Secretary Panetta says the next four years could see a US military unable to meet it's commitments around the world.
The massive spending cuts are expected to impact all branches of the military.