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Hagel, Dempsey defend proposed cuts in military strength

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the Pentagon’s proposal to trim military strength on Wednesday, while also asking lawmakers for additional funding for training and weapons upgrades.

Mr. Hagel told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Pentagon is repositioning the military for new strategic challenges and opportunities, while navigating “through a period of great uncertainty.”

With austerity pressure shrinking the defense budget during recent years, Mr. Hagel said, the Defense Department has had to make tough choices. He noted the Pentagon had to accommodate a $37 billion budget cut “in a matter of months while trying to avoid catastrophic damage to national security.”

For the first time since he released the Fiscal Year 2015 budget request, Mr. Hagel met publicly with lawmakers to discuss their concerns about the budget, ranging from proposals to pump another $26 billion into the budget to a reduction in the number of service members available to respond to national emergencies.

Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, expressed interest in the possibility of exceeding statutory spending caps on the Fiscal Year 2015 budget request to the tune of $26 billion.

The Pentagon is requesting the extra funding — a budget boost defense officials describe as an “Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative” — to pay for additional training and repairs.

Mr. Hagel has said the initiative would be paid for “with a balanced package of spending cuts and tax reforms” that would let the Pentagon “increase training, upgrade aircraft and weapons systems, and make needed repairs” to military facilities.

“If we want to restore funding cuts proposed in the president’s budget, we have two choices: We can raise the statutory funding caps, or we can find other savings in the defense budget to pay for any proposed cuts that we do not want to make,” Mr. Levin suggested.

Mr. Hagel said, that while the Pentagon was capable of fulfilling its national security missions without the additional $26 billion, doing so would create uncertainties, such as dealing with countries that are continuing to modernize their anti-aircraft and anti-ship weapons.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said he supported the $26 billion initiative, which he said would let the Pentagon maintain readiness in an increasingly hostile environment, citing Russia’s invasion of Crimea, stalled nuclear negotiations with Iran, the latest North Korean missile firings, the ongoing Syrian civil war and a China that is becoming “more and more aggressive.”

China announced just last week a 12.2 percent increase in its defense budget, its biggest raise in three years, Mr. McCain said.

“I must say, Mr. Secretary, your timing is exquisite,” he said. “You’re coming over here with a budget that we agree on — at least on the numbers — at a time when the world is probably more unsettled than it has been since the end of World War II.”

In addition to discussing the $26 billion initiative, senators also mulled over the Defense Department’s plan to reduce the size of both the active-duty military and reserves.

The plan has drawn ire from state governors, who rely on the Army National Guard to respond to domestic emergencies. Mr. Hagel has recommended that the military trim the size of its active-duty Army from 520,000 to somewhere between 440,000 to 450,000 soldiers. The Army National Guard would see its numbers shrink from 355,000 to 335,000 and the Army Reserves would draw down from 205,000 to 195,000 soldiers, according to the Fiscal Year 2015 defense budget request.

Sen. Joe Manchin, West Virginia Democrat and a former governor, said he had met with Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John Campbell last week to discuss the planned reductions. He did not detail their conversation, but suggested that perhaps the Army National Guard units are more cost-effective than active-duty forces.

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