Another round of deep budget cuts could force the Army to shed up to 100,000 more troops, including steep reductions in Army Reserve and National Guard forces, the service's top general said Tuesday.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno told reporters in Washington that the ground service was able to fashion a 57,000-troop reduction plan without "touching" the Reserve and Guard ranks. But if Congress fails to pass legislation this year that would head off more military spending cuts, Army officials would have no choice but to slash more active-duty troops and the two reserve components.
Faced with $500 billion in additional cuts if Congress does not act, Army brass might have to cut "tens of thousands" of troops from the active side, the National Guard and the Army Reserve, Odierno said. "It could be 100,000 [combined]," he said.
The Pentagon plans to cut the number of active-duty soldiers from 570,000 troops to 490,000 by 2017. Pentagon officials say that cut can be done safely because they swelled the ground services to meet the needs of conducting two simultaneous stability and counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Obama administration plans would bring down the size of the ground forces with the Iraq conflict over and Afghanistan beginning to wind down. What's more, the DoD's strategic focus is shifting to Asia-Pacific region, where naval and air forces will be more important.
The proposed troops cuts, however, do not call for Army Reserve or National Guard cuts. The latter has about 200,000 troops and the former around 350,000, according to the Army.
Republicans on Capitol Hill oppose any troop cuts, even the ones proposed in the 2013 budget plan that would shed some of the troops added for Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Laying off 100,000 troops during a manpower-heavy fight in Afghanistan is a dangerous path to walk. Losing 100,000 more would be catastrophic," said John Noonan, deputy communications director for the House Armed Services Committee. "The force cuts included in sequestration would be unprecedented in both swiftness of the reductions and in the indifference to strategic requirements."
Some military analysts say the Army could get smaller than the 57,000-soldier cut already on the table.
"I think the Army and Marines can together shed another 30,000 to 50,000 troops if it is done gradually," said Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. "That kind of force could do one major war and two smaller stability operations with U.S. allies," O'Hanlon added, but also said taking 100,000 more soldiers from the Army "would be too much."
The prospect of laying off tens of thousands more active-duty troops, while also taking income away from Guard and Reserve forces, would have broader economic implications, says Mackenzie Eaglen, a former congressional staffer now with the American Enterprise Institute.
"If [additional cuts] leads the Defense Department to lay off 20 percent of entire DoD workforce, there will surely be a direct and proportional increase in applications for unemployment benefits," Eaglen said. That means a broader debt-reduction law enacted last year that ordered defense cuts could "end up saving not one penny," she said. "This is not an economy that can just absorb that many people."
Odierno said he would be forced to target the non-active duty parts of his service for troops shrinkage if the $500 billion Pentagon funding reduction is triggered because "nothing would go untouched." Pentagon leaders say they are not planning for how to best implement a $500 billion, decade-long cut because "there's not much planning to do," Odierno said.
"We would take a percentage out of every line" in the budget, said the Army chief. The planning work would come in "figuring out where the impacts are," and being mindful that "if we exclude one thing," other parts of the Army's annual budget would take even steeper cuts, he told reporters.
Republican lawmakers are trying to pin both the $350 billion in defense cuts over a decade and the $500 billion that would be triggered if lawmakers fail to pass a $1.2 trillion debt-reduction bill on President Obama.
But Leon Panetta and other senior Pentagon officials counter such claims by pointing out two things: The $350 billion cut came from the last-minute debt-paring law Congress approved in August and lawmakers can remove the threat of the additional $500 billion national defense cut by reaching a $1.2 trillion debt-reduction accord by the end of this year.