The Pentagon plans to expand its global network of drones and special-operations bases in a fundamental realignment meant to project U.S. power even as it cuts back conventional forces.
The plan, to be unveiled by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday and in budget documents next month, calls for a 30% increase in the U.S. fleet of armed unmanned aircraft in the coming years, defense officials said. It 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 utility of such tools was evident on Wednesday after an elite team—including members of Navy SEAL Team Six, the unit that killed Osama bin Laden—parachuted into Somalia and freed an American woman and Danish man held hostage for months.
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.
"What we really want is to see the Army adopt the mentality of special forces," said a military officer who advises Pentagon leaders.
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.
Marines, for example, will use a new base in Darwin, Australia, as a launch pad for Southeast Asia, while the U.S. is in talks to expand the U.S. presence in the Philippines—potential signals to China that the U.S. has quick-response capability in its backyard, defense officials said.
Yet many of the proposed bases will be secret and could temporarily house small commando teams, the officials said.
"There are going to be times when action is called upon, like Tuesday night, when it will be clearly advantageous to be forward deployed," a military official said, referring to the Somalia operation. "On the other hand, most of the time it will help you to be there to develop host nation or regional security."
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 Mr. Obama in the coming presidential campaign, lawmakers could try to block his proposals on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Obama often emphasizes the value of special-operations raids like the one that killed bin Laden to fend off criticism.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, sees the bases and drones as part of an effort to offset cutbacks that some critics say will undercut the U.S.'s global dominance. The Pentagon says it will have more than enough force to fight at least one major troop-intensive ground war.
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.
Many Obama administration officials see last year's international military intervention in Libya as a model for future conflicts, with the U.S. using its air power up front while also relying on its allies, and on local forces to fight on the ground.
"You are looking at the military try to find new ways to stay globally engaged. When you are smaller, you have to be smarter," said a U.S. official.
Mr. Panetta alluded in a speech on Friday to plans to invest more heavily in drones and special forces, saying the U.S. wanted to develop an "innovative rotational presence" in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere.
Mr. Panetta is scheduled to outline elements of the department's $525 billion budget for fiscal 2013, including the first of $487 billion in cuts over 10 years, at the Pentagon Thursday.
The plan, however, envisions a 10% increase in special-operations forces over the next four years, from 63,750 this year to 70,000 by 2015, U.S. officials said. Mr. Panetta also will announce a buildup in the drone fleet in the coming years, U.S. officials said, following growth under predecessor Robert Gates.
The Air Force now operates 61 drone combat air patrols around the clock, with up to four drones in each patrol. Mr. Panetta's plan calls for the military to have enough drones to comfortably operate 65 combat air patrols constantly with the ability to temporarily surge to 85 combat air patrols, officials said.
The new emphasis represents a victory for Vice President Joe Biden and others in the White House who argued for reducing troops in Afghanistan and relying more on special-operations forces and local allies.
The strategy is similar to ideas that circulated through the military in the years before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and were championed by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Mr. Rumsfeld advocated building facilities in Eastern Europe and other locations as he pushed to remake the Army into a lighter, more expeditionary force. Mr. Rumsfeld declined a request for an interview.
The use of secretive commando teams and small, low-profile bases is appealing to the Obama administration because of the reduced costs, said a U.S. official briefed on the plans. They also risk less apprehension by host governments.
Military leaders are looking into the creation of new special-operations bases in Turkey and eastern Jordan, near the border with Iraq. U.S. officials said. Those will supplement a network of airstrips and other facilities in the region that house drones and operatives used for missions in Yemen, Somalia and beyond.
Military Prepares Realignment: More Drones, Special Forces - WSJ.com