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Change in U.S. defense strategy could ease fiscal challenge: report

By David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A group of national security experts on Thursday proposed a new U.S. defense strategy they said could be safely implemented at different budget levels, enabling President Barack Obama to cut Pentagon spending by more than the $487 billion agreed to so far.

The strategy, by a group of 15 defense experts assembled by the Stimson Center think tank, proposes reducing costs by improving manpower usage, cutting back on foreign bases, curbing nuclear modernization efforts, reforming compensation and taking other steps to improve efficiency within the Defense Department.

Stimson Center co-founder Barry Blechman, who led a group that included retired Marine Corps General James Cartwright, retired Admiral Bill Owens and scholars Gordon Adams and Anne-Marie Slaughter, said the strategy, dubbed "Strategic Agility," expanded on the one unveiled by the Pentagon in January.

"It's more an evolution than any kind of radical change," Blechman said in an interview. "It's a shift, a greater shift, toward an expeditionary model of U.S. military power that moves away from the kind of static big bases that characterized our Cold War posture to rotational deployments of forces in and out of regions to exercise."

The new strategy adopted by the Defense Department in January called for a shift in strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region, with the removal of some military units from Europe and more rotational deployments by U.S.-based troops to both Europe and Asia.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been working to implement the strategy over the past year, traveling to Asia four times and bolstering military ties with countries from Japan to Australia and New Zealand.

The strategy comes as the United States is cutting back on military spending after a decade of wars and rising defense budgets. Obama and Congress agreed last year to cut projected defense spending by $487 billion over a decade.

The Pentagon also faces an additional $500 billion in automatic spending cuts over a decade beginning in January unless Obama and Congress can agree on an alternative package of revenue increases and spending cuts. Republicans and Democrats have both spoken out against the automatic defense cuts, but have so far failed to reach a compromise to avert them.

The president and Congress are expected to try again to find a compromise before year's end. But many officials say that even if automatic cuts are avoided, Pentagon spending will have to be reduced further.

Blechman said the "Strategic Agility" plan could be implemented without jeopardizing U.S. strategic interests at various funding levels, whether the defense budget is increased over the next decade or cut by $500 billion as required by the automatic trigger.

"If defense plays a part in solving the overall fiscal crisis, it's still possible ... through implementation of this strategy to defend our real interests in the world," Blechman said.

The group estimated the Pentagon could achieve up to $500 billion in savings over a decade through better manpower usage, up to $300 billion through compensation reform and more than $100 billion using better purchasing practices.

(Editing by Peter Cooney)

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