04/14/2011 02:49 pm ET Updated Jun 14, 2011

Obama Administration Considers Altering U.S. Military's Global Role

By Colin Clark
Editor, AOL Defense

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration, with very little fanfare, has launched what national security experts say is the most significant reconsideration of the United States' military role in the world since at least the end of the Cold War.

The announcement was made yesterday in President Obama's deficit speech, in which he appeared to call for cutting as much as another $400 billion in spending from the Department of Defense.

"Over the last two years, [Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates has courageously taken on wasteful spending, saving $400 billion in current and future spending. I believe we can do that again. We need to not only eliminate waste and improve efficiency and effectiveness, but conduct a fundamental review of America's missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world," Obama said.

The Pentagon "will identify alternatives for the president's consideration," Gates' press secretary Geoff Morrell said late yesterday afternoon. The “roles and missions analysis” -- military shorthand for the review -- should be finished by the beginning of Fiscal Year 2013, about 10 months from now.

One of Gates' closest advisers, Andrew Krepinevich, called the president's remarks "an almost earth-shattering speech" during an address at a conference sponsored by the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis on the future of the Marine Corps. Krepinevich, who is head of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment and also serves on the Defense Policy Board, told AOL Defense he believes this is the most significant strategic period since the turbulent period after World War II.

Krepinevich said the cuts come at a very difficult time. The threat level the U.S. faces is likely to increase for the next decade and, more ominously, the threats are shifting in form. If the U.S. is forced to cut defense spending in this environment, it may well be left with the wrong mix of weapons, strategy and personnel to handle the changing world, Krepinevich said.

But he was cautious in his analysis of the Gates' announcement of a roles and missions study, which traditionally focuses on smaller changes. The White House has not, as far as he knows, decided to launch a strategic review. But Krepinevich said he thinks the White House and Pentagon must first focus on strategy because the stakes are so high and there are so many fundamental military and social changes underway across the globe.

Jacquelyn Davis, a defense expert at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis (IFPA), told AOL Defense that she believes Libya may spell the "death" of the NATO alliance -- a statement that shows just how fundamental the stakes are.

Another speaker at the IFPA conference, national security author Bob Kaplan, called the current period the "most unstable era in a long time."

But it looks as though the president isn't really asking for an additional $400 billion in defense cuts.

A White House fact sheet issued after the Wednesday speech says the cuts will come from "security spending," which defense budget expert Todd Harrison, who works with Krepinevich at CSBA, noted would include the departments governing veterans, energy, homeland security and defense.

"It looks like we won't know every much until the [roles and missions] review is done,” how much might be cut from the Pentagon budget, Harrison said.

Any savings would be spread over 12 years, out to 2023. Harrison said the pledge of cuts is "kind of vague, but the takeaway is that it's a larger cut than we expected."

Launching in Spring 2011, AOL Defense will provide news, insight and tools about the defense sector. Follow Colin on Twitter at @colinclarkaol. Follow defense news on Twitter at @aoldefense.