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.'"
The proposal, he said, ignores the danger such cuts could create for America's airmen, sailors and soldiers.
"We're going to be accepting a huge, huge amount of risk that, frankly, is going to be paid for in the lives and blood of our young men and women when something happens down the road — and something always happens down the road," Mr. Bucci said.
Others cautioned against responding to Mr. Hagel's proposal with fearmongering and stressed that the Pentagon must be prepared to modernize, all while coping with budget pressures that require difficult trims to the military force.
"I think the cuts are prudent, generally speaking," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow specializing in defense and foreign policy issues at the Brookings Institution.
Mr. O'Hanlon said the philosophy laid out by Mr. Hagel "could be dangerous if taken too far," but that the overall cuts suggested to "near-term capabilities are generally modest, as are the proposed caps on compensation."
There is "room to make some further changes in areas such as weapons modernization — which may be needed, in fact, since sequestration may return in 2016," he said.
Initial responses from lawmakers on Capitol Hill were split generally along party lines.
"With the drawdown of forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, along with our current budget limitations, changes to our military are no doubt necessary," said Rep. Martha Roby, Alabama Republican and chairwoman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on oversight and investigations. "However, those changes should reflect our national defense priorities and common sense, not politics."
The Armed Services Committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, said Mr. Hagel and his advisers were doing their best in the face of severe sequestration cuts to put forward a budget that provides for the nation's security needs.
"Secretary Hagel clearly articulated that future uncertainty is making it difficult for the department to plan," said Mr. Smith, who noted that Congress has continued to fail to provide the military "with financial security and stability."
"Sequestration imposed mindless cuts that hurt military readiness in fiscal year 2013," he said. "If Congress does not act, sequestration will go back into effect in fiscal year 2016 and beyond."
Among Mr. Hagel's proposals most likely to draw opposition was a call for another round of domestic military base closings in 2017. In the years after the last round of closings in 2005, members of Congress fought to protect bases in their home districts and states, arguing that the process does not yield as much savings as advertised.
A similar fight could unfold in the years ahead. Although Congress has agreed on an overall number for the total military budget in fiscal 2015 — just less than $500 billion — major decisions still must be made about precise cuts needed to reach that target.
Mr. Hagel argued that the Pentagon's budget constraints require new ways to manage that spending, with an eye to cutting costs across a wide front, including in areas certain to draw opposition in Congress.
He proposed changes in military compensation, including smaller pay raises, a slowdown in the growth of tax-free housing allowances and a requirement that retirees and some families of active-duty service members pay more in health insurance deductibles and co-pays.
"Although these recommendations do not cut anyone's pay, I realize they will be controversial," Mr. Hagel said, adding that the nation cannot afford the escalating cost of military pay and benefit packages enacted during the war years.
"If we continue on the current course without making these modest adjustments now, the choices will only grow more difficult and painful down the road," he said.
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.