Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Monday that the Army must shrink to pre-World War II troop levels to preserve funding for elite counterterrorism operations and maintain the cybersecurity programs needed to counter threats by emerging rivals such as China.
In the first major strategy proposal put forth by Mr. Hagel since he took over as the Obama administration’s defense boss a year ago, the former Republican senator outlined a wide-ranging restructuring of the Pentagon budget over the coming five years.
The changes represent the U.S. military’s attempts to come to terms with fiscal pressures felt across government.
At its core, Mr. Hagel’s plan would pave the way for the U.S. to begin in earnest a much-anticipated and long-term shift from the ground war footing and manpower-heavy troop buildups that have dominated so much of the nation’s military spending since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
With the proposal also arriving before the military pullout from Afghanistan, the White House is expected to put its full and formal weight behind the restructuring plan when it unveils its 2015 budget next week.
While the proposal drew almost immediate heat from conservative analysts and lawmakers, Mr. Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon that he and his advisers would push for “further reductions in troop strength and force structure in every military service — active and reserve — in order to sustain our readiness and technological superiority, and to protect critical capabilities like special operations forces and cyber resources.”
A list published Monday evening by The Associated Press framed the proposal along the following lines:
• The active-duty Army would shrink from 522,000 soldiers to 440,000 to 450,000 — the smallest number since 1940, when the nation was gearing up for World War II. The Army is scheduled to be reduced to 490,000 troops.
• The Army National Guard would drop from 355,000 soldiers to 335,000 by 2017, and the Army Reserve would drop by 10,000, to 195,000.
• The Marine Corps would shrink from 190,000 to 182,000.
• The Navy would keep its 11 aircraft carriers but “lay up,” or temporarily remove from active service, 11 of its 22 cruisers while they are modernized.
• The Air Force would retire its fleet of A-10 Warthog “tank-killer” planes for an estimated savings of $3.5 billion over five years. It also would retire the venerable U-2 spy plane.
Some analysts slammed the proposal out of the gate, calling it a stealth attempt by the administration to push forward deeper than needed cuts under the guise of a budget restructuring.
Steve Bucci, an analyst of national security issues at the Heritage Foundation, said Mr. Hagel’s proposal is loaded with “rhetorical smoke and mirrors” aimed at distracting from serious budget reductions.
“They have not said, ‘We are going to make these cuts to build this cyber capability,’” said Mr. Bucci. “They’ve said, ‘We’re going to make these cuts because this is all the money we’ve got.’”