Cuts in Army troop levels to continue in new budget

5:20 PM, Feb 24, 2014   |    comments
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Video: Pentagon to lower troop count, reduce benefits in new budget

Soldiers of the U.S. Army 23rd chemical battalion salute during a ceremony April 4, 2013, in South Korea. (Photo: Lee Jin-man, AP)



WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Monday reinforced the Pentagon's ongoing plan to save money while emphasizing special operations and technology for the future by calling for a smaller Army, changes in pay and the elimination of some venerable aircraft, weapons and bases.

Hagel also said the cuts could get worse if Congress doesn't agree to the Obama administration's plan to add an extra $26 billion to the Pentagon budget to prevent some of the more dramatic cuts called for by the 2011 Budget Control Act, which is also known as sequestration.

The new budget proposal calls for the Army to shrink to its smallest size in decades, between 440,000 and 450,000 soldiers by 2019, Hagel said. If Congress doesn't restore money to the Pentagon budget, the number of soldiers would instead drop to 420,000 by 2019, as USA TODAY reported last month.

STORY: Budget plan would slash Army by 100,000 soldiers

Those cuts, from the current level of 528,000 soldiers, were needed "to protect critical capabilities like Special Operations Forces and cyber resources," Hagel said.

"We are repositioning to focus on the strategic challenges and opportunities that will define our future; new technologies, new centers of power, and a world that is growing more volatile, more unpredictable, and in some instances more threatening to the United States," Hagel said.

Also gone from the Obama administration's proposed military budget is the Air Force's A-10 "Warthog" aircraft, which specializes in close-air support missions for ground troops. First fielded in the 1970s, the A-10 was meant to "kill enemy tanks on a Cold War battlefield," Hagel said. Since other aircraft can perform the same role and the A-10 is old and no longer in production, Hagel proposes eliminating the A-10 fleet.

The U-2 spy plane is another long-serving Air Force aircraft on the chopping block. Hagel said the new budget proposal calls for eliminating the U-2, perhaps best known for a 1960 downing over the Soviet Union, and replacing it with the unmanned Global Hawk spy plane. That reverses an earlier Air Force plan to keep the U-2 because of problems with Global Hawk.

Over the last several years, the Pentagon has fixed many of the Global Hawk's problems and lowered its operating costs, Hagel said.

Instead of building 52 of the Navy's new Littoral Combat Ships, Hagel said the service would stop at 32. "If we were to build out the LCS program to 52 ships, as previously planned, it would represent one-sixth of our future 300-ship Navy," Hagel said. That would skew the Navy's fleet too much in one direction, he said. The program, which has major supporters in the shipbuilding industry and in Congress, has been hampered by cost overruns and negative reports about crew protection.

Army cuts

The proposed Army cuts have been in the works for years. An earlier planned called for the service to drop from its highest level - 570,000 soldiers - to 490,000 by 2019. But the protracted budget negotiations between President Obama and congressional Republicans led to further cuts, including those proposed Monday.

Hagel stepped in Monday to end one fight between parts of the Army. The National Guard had proposed taking some of the active-duty Army's role, much to the chagrin of Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army's chief of staff. But Hagel said Monday that Guard units will not take over roles from the regular Army.

"Experience shows that specialties requiring greater collective training to achieve combat proficiency and service integration should reside in the full-time force," Hagel said.

Odierno had warned Pentagon leaders that the 450,000-soldier level would be "too small," and at "high risk to meet one major war," according to documents obtained by USA TODAY. The documents also showed that Army leaders said the service could not adequately protect the country and fight abroad at the 420,000-soldier level.

Personnel costs

The budget calls for a 1% pay increase for most troops, although generals and admirals would receive a one-year pay freeze. Hagel said he wants to slow the growth of housing allowances and require active-duty and retired members of the military to make a larger contribution to their health care costs in the TRICARE program.

Future pay and pension questions, he said, will be handled by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, which is expected to issues its report in a year.

"Although these recommendations do not cut anyone's pay, I realize they will be controversial," Hagel said. "Congress has taken some important steps in recent years to control the growth in compensation spending, but we must do more."

Bases and overhead

Hagel said he also recommended another round of base closings, a request that has gone nowhere in recent Congresses. "I am mindful that Congress has not agreed to our ... requests of the last two years," he said. "But if Congress continues to block these requests even as they slash the overall budget, we will have to consider every tool at our disposal to reduce infrastructure."

Last year, Hagel announced a plan to cut 20% of the Pentagon's major headquarters budgets, which could save $5 billion over five years. He said he will continue to find ways to cut more spending in those areas.

He also called for a $1 billion reduction in the annual subsidy for military commissaries.

By Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY

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