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The military services could get smaller faster under Pentagon proposals that have the support of a key senator.
One proposal would expand the pool of active-duty officers eligible for selective early retirement, making O-5s eligible for involuntary retirement after being passed over for promotion just once.
A second proposal would increase potential personnel cuts being made in the Army and Marine Corps by modifying drawdown limits imposed by Congress.
The Army would be allowed to cut active-duty soldiers by 25,000 a year, 10,000 more than allowed under current law, while the Marine Corps could cut up to 7,500 Marines a year, 2,500 more than now allowed.
The two changes are supported by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee’s personnel panel. She offered the changes as amendments to S 1197, the Senate’s version of the 2014 defense authorization bill.
The House never took up these Pentagon proposals because they were sent to Congress after the House passed its version of the defense bill in June.
For the moment, the fate of the proposals hinges on whether the Senate can pass its massive defense policy bill, aides said.
The Senate is having difficulty managing the more than 500 amendments filed on the measure. But aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the force reduction proposals are not considered controversial, and are likely to be included in whatever defense legislation ultimately passes the Senate.
Gillibrand’s plan does not change the Defense Department’s goal of an active-duty force of 1.32 million service members in 2018, about 73,000 fewer than in 2013. Defense plans called for the Army to drop to 490,000 active-duty soldiers and the Marine Corps to drop to 182,1000, reductions of 64,000 for the Army and 15,000 from the Marine Corps from pre-9/11 levels.
Marine Corps leaders would like to maintain a postwar active-duty force of 186,800, but in fact the long-term budget cuts known as sequestration are expected to leave enough funding for 174,000 Marines by the end of 2016 — though Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has warned the number could go as low as 150,000.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos has said going below 174,000 would impede the Corps’ ability to act as the nation’s 911 force.
Defense plans call for modest growth in the Navy while the Air Force would reduce its active-duty personnel level by about 5,000 people by 2017 as part of a rebalancing of active and reserve forces.
Selective early retirement boards already have been used by the services, but current law allows O-5s to be considered for involuntary retirement only if they have been passed over two or more times for promotion.
Gillibrand’s amendment would lower the threshold for lieutenant colonels and Navy commanders so that someone passed over just once and is not on a promotion list could be screened by a board for retirement.
Her amendment also expands the population of colonels and Navy captains who could be screened for early retirement. Under current law, O-6s are not subject to screening until they have at least four years in grade. Gillibrand would drop the threshold for consideration to at least two years in grade.
Defense officials made a case to the Senate Armed Services Committee for changes in selective early retirement, arguing the ability to more easily retire O-5s and O-6s could prove important in times of tighter personnel budgets.
It is unclear whether the proposal to allow bigger personnel cuts in the Army and Marine Corps will be considered noncontroversial by the House Armed Services Committee. It pushed for the previous drawdown limits out of concerns that a rapid postwar reduction in experienced combat veterans could hurt U.S. military readiness and capabilities.
But Senate aides said they were convinced by defense and service officials that the faster pace of reductions has no impact on combat power.
They said that’s because the Army is reducing a backlog of nondeployable soldiers who had remained on active duty while their medical and disability discharges were being processed.
Senate aides said military officials told them the larger drop in personnel in the Marine Corps is required because the Corps double-counted the number of people who would be willing to take a special incentive pay to leave the service.
Without permission for deeper cuts, the Army could get along by just keeping more people on active duty. But the Marine Corps could be close to violating the law because its personnel levels will have to drop because of the math error.