The American military is preparing to go under the knife, bracing for proposed cuts that would turn it into a force almost unrecognizable from its post-Cold War ancestor that endured roughly 13 years of protracted ground war in the Middle East.
Citing massive budget constraints at home, as well as growing and ill-defined threats across the globe, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Monday previewed the budget he will present to Congress next week that seeks to find more than $75 billion in immediate savings due to automatic cuts known as sequestration, on top of other planned defense spending cuts.
As one senior defense official said, “This is a very consequential budget.”
“This is a different time," Hagel said Monday. "This is the first time in 13 years we will be presenting a budget to the Congress of the United States without a war footing.”
Hagel also pointed to the "Pacific rebalance" that has been a signature of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, while also addressing the growing al-Qaida threat in North Africa and the Middle East.
“American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted,” Hagel said, repeating a common mantra in the Obama administration to push for new space-age planes, ships and other technology that would allow the U.S. to compete with countries like China and Russia. Giving this business to the defense industrial base is a national security priority in itself, the Pentagon says.
Among the most drastic proposed changes is a massive slash to the total number of active-duty ground troops in favor of more maneuverable forces such as special operations commandos. The new budget would create a force that could only respond to one major ground campaign, as opposed to the military that took on widespread fights simultaneously in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The number of Army soldiers would fall from 520,000 current active troops down beyond the original projection of 490,000 to as few as 440,000 -- a level unseen since the end of World War II. If sequestration persists through 2016, that number could fall to 420,000.
“You’ll have a smaller force, a less capable force, maybe a force that cannot react as quickly,” a senior military official said Monday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “That gives you less margin of error in what could end up being major ground warfare anywhere in the world, you name it.”
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned against settling for the extreme cuts under sequestration.
"I'm telling you, 420 is too low," he told reporters after Hagel's remarks.
The continued paycheck increase for all troops also would be slowed from 40 percent since 2001 down to only 1 percent in the proposed budget. One-star generals and admirals and above would have their pay frozen. All housing budgets also would drop from 100 percent down to 95 percent, and commissaries would get cuts to some of the subsidies that keep prices at the on-base shops low.
The Marine Corps would lose a significant number of troops, dropping from its current level of 190,000 to 182,000, and focusing on its traditional role of crisis response and maritime-based missions. Under sequestration, that troop level could drop to 175,000.
The Air Force would lose the A-10 Thunderbolt II, the Cold War era tank-buster affectionately known as the “Warthog” for its unconventional but rugged airframe. It found a renewed and hardcore following among the ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan it helped defend, but lost out to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and other existing aircraft that can use increasingly effective precision munitions, Hagel said.
Airmen also would say goodbye to the U-2 spy plane in favor of a drone alternative, the Global Hawk. This decision represents a broad approach for the military, enticed by the cost-effectiveness of unmanned platforms like the Global Hawk, as well as the Predator and Reaper drones that cut their teeth in the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Navy would scrap the 20 extra littoral combat ships (LCS) it originally thought it would build, leaving the force of “vanilla platforms” designed to fight submarines and find mines at its current projected level of 32. Concerns over the LCS’ ability to operate in a hostile environment has prompted the Pentagon now to develop a more lethal alternative.
The Army National Guard, which shared a uniform and fought alongside active-duty troops throughout the wars in the Middle East, would not get its post-Afghanistan wish of becoming a ready alternative to a larger active-duty force. It may drop to as few as 335,000 guardsmen, or 315,000 under sequestration. Guard officials, including National Guard Bureau Chief Gen. Frank Grass, have maintained that the force must have the same capabilities as the active Army so that it can step in when called upon, as it has throughout the war in Afghanistan.
The Guard would, however, lose its entire fleet of AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, which the regular Army would take over. The Army, in turn, would give the Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to assist with its domestic disaster response mission.
All OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopters would be retired. If sequestration continues, half of the Guard’s helicopters would be cut.
“Sequestration requires cuts so deep, so quickly, that we cannot shrink the size of our military fast enough,” Hagel said Monday. “In the short term, the only way to implement sequestration is to sharply reduce spending on readiness and modernization, which would almost certainly result in a ‘hollow force,’ one that isn’t ready or capable of fulfilling assigned missions.
“In the longer term, after trimming the military enough to restore readiness and modernization, the resulting force would be too small to fully execute the president’s defense strategy.”