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Pentagon to expand global drone and special operations network


January 26, 2012 - Washington

The Pentagon plans to expand its global network of drones and special-operations bases to project U.S. power, while cutting back on conventional forces.

The plan, to be unveiled by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday, calls for a 30 percent increase in the U.S. fleet of armed unmanned aircraft in the coming years, the Wall Street Journal quoted defense officials, as saying.

The plan also foresees the deployment of more special operations teams at a growing number of small "lily pad" bases across the globe where they can mentor local allies and launch missions.

The strategy reflects the Obama administration's increasing focus on small, secret operations in place of larger wars.

The shift follows the U.S. troop pullout from Iraq in December, and comes alongside the gradual U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, where a troop-intensive strategy is giving way to an emphasis on training Afghan forces and on hunt-and-kill missions.

Defense officials said the U.S. Army plans to eliminate at least eight brigades while reducing the size of the active duty Army from 570,000 to 490,000, cuts that are likely to hit armored and heavy infantry units the hardest.

But drone and special-operations deployments would continue to grow as they have in recent years.

At the same time, the Army aims to accentuate the importance of special operations by preserving light, rapidly deployable units such as the 82nd and the 101st Airborne divisions.

The new strategy would assign specific U.S.-based Army brigades and Marine Expeditionary units to different regions of the world, where they would travel regularly for joint exercises and other missions, using permanent facilities and the forward-staging bases that some advisers call lily pads.

Republican presidential contenders have seized on planned cuts to accuse President Barack Obama of weakening the U.S. military. While national-security issues aren't seen as a weakness for Obama in the coming presidential campaign, lawmakers could try to block his proposals on Capitol Hill.

The Pentagon still will invest in some big-ticket items, including the F-35 stealth fighter, as a counterweight to rising powers, including China-although the department is poised to announce this week that it is going to slow procurement of the new plane, said defense officials.

Panetta is scheduled to outline elements of the department's 525 billion dollar budget for fiscal 2013, including the first of 487 billion dollar in cuts over 10 years, at the Pentagon Thursday.

ANI

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