Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has for the first time offered details of how today’s budget cuts will affect the military over the next decade, suggesting the Army and Marine Corps force levels could drop to historic lows, the Navy’s carrier fleet will face reductions, and some Air Force fighter jet squadrons will be permanently eliminated.
For troops, involuntary separations may be on the horizon, and military pay and benefits could take a big hit in the form of smaller pay raises, reduced housing allowances, cuts to overseas cost-of-living adjustments, and limits on access to military health care for younger retirees.
Hagel outlined the conclusions of the strategic review he launched in March after taking over the Pentagon’s top job, as the long-term budget cuts known as sequestration were beginning to hit home across the force. He laid out in stark detail the fundamental choice facing the military between capacity and capability — in other words, whether to stop spending money on people or on cutting-edge technology.
He said the proposals obviously remain open to further debate on Capitol Hill and internal analysis at the Pentagon, yet suggested they offer a window on the future if Washington fails to reach a new, broad-based federal budget agreement and lift the mandatory, automatic spending cuts required under current law.
“Many will object to these ideas — and I want to be clear that we are not announcing any compensation changes today,” Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon on July 31. “But a sequester-level scenario would compel us to consider these changes, because there would be no realistic alternative that did not pose unacceptable risk to national security.”
The Pentagon has been examining several budget scenarios, and some changes may take effect even if the sequester-level spending caps are lifted.
Hagel said his review concluded that “we could still execute the priority missions determined by our defense strategy,” while dropping the Army’s active-duty end strength from a current target of 490,000 down to “between 420,000 and 450,000.”
Hagel said more severe cuts might be required if Congress reaches no new agreement and the budget cuts on the books today, which amount to a roughly 10 percent cut across the board, remain in effect.
That could mean dropping the total number of active-duty soldiers down to “between 380,000 and 450,000 troops,” while Marine Corps end strength could fall from today’s target of 182,000 down to “between 150,000 and 175,000,” Hagel said.
For the Navy, the number of carrier strike groups could be dropped from today’s 11 to “eight or nine.”
“The basic trade-off is between capacity — measured in the number of Army brigades, Navy ships, Air Force squadrons and Marine battalions — and capability, our ability to modernize weapons systems to maintain our military’s technological edge,” Hagel said.
Hagel said options that focus on keeping a larger force would require canceling many modernization programs, slowing the growth of cyber programs and cutting special operations forces. He appeared to signal a preference for reductions to manpower rather than modernization, saying “cuts on this scale would, in effect, be a decadelong modernization holiday.”
Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Defense Department is leaning toward a budget strategy that “edges slightly, probably, toward capability,” rather than manpower and capacity.
Other compensation-related cuts under consideration include ending subsidies for defense commissaries, restricting the availability of unemployment benefits for out-of-work veterans, and eliminating civilian pensions for military retirees working as civilians in government jobs, Hagel said.
Regardless of whether the sequestration crunch is lifted, cuts to the Pentagon bureaucracy are in the works. Pentagon officials offered new details on plans to slash budgets for military headquarters elements by 20 percent over the next five years.
The reductions will apply to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the individual service headquarters and other four-star staffs, as well as the combatant command staffs and major defense agencies and activities.
Separations and layoffs
Even the most draconian reductions outlined by Hagel will not be enough to satisfy the budget constraints imposed by current law for the next several years. That’s because many of the proposed cuts will take several years to have a big impact on the budget.
For example, the Pentagon will start fiscal 2014 in October with a requirement to cut about $52 billion from its requested base budget of $526 billion. But the budget-cutting measures proposed by Hagel will save no more than $20 billion, officials say.
That means the military will likely have to continue the drastic measures that began in March, which required across-the-board cuts resulting in civilian furloughs, delayed maintenance programs, fewer flying hours, steaming days and large-scale training exercises.
In addition, involuntary separations and civilian layoffs will be considered for next year, Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
The worsening budget picture is raising questions about whether the Pentagon will have enough money to execute the strategic “pivot” to Asia that was outlined as a key component of the new national defense strategy in 2011.
“Under the worst case ... it would be very challenging to implement that as it was originally conceived,” a senior defense official said at a background briefing following Hagel’s announcement.
Some lawmakers said the Pentagon’s latest assessment should force the nation to scale back its overarching global strategy to reflect diminished ambitions.
“Someone has to say, ‘Listen, America: You can no longer police the world, nor should you police the world,’ ” said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., whose district includes the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune.
Adding to the Pentagon’s dilemma is that so far, Congress has limited defense officials’ flexibility to find cost savings. For example, the Pentagon wants to launch a new round of base closures to reduce overhead costs and limit troops’ pay raises next year to 1 percent. Congress has refused to support those measures.
And language has been drafted for the 2014 defense authorization bill that would prohibit DoD from furloughing civilian employees again next year.
Hagel suggested that lawmakers, having created the budget crisis, are now making it worse: “Opposition to these proposals must be engaged and overcome, or we will be forced to take even more draconian steps in the future.”