Pentagon Budget-Cutting Plans Sure To Draw Flak

February 24, 2014

Click here to jump to Monday afternoon’s highlights of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s announcement.

One of Monday’s most talked-about headlines comes from The New York Times:

Pentagon Plans to Shrink Army to Pre-World War II Level.”

According to the Times, when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday briefs Congress about the military’s spending plans, the budget will include “plans to shrink the United States Army to its smallest force since before the World War II buildup and eliminate an entire class of Air Force attack jets.”

“Under Mr. Hagel’s proposals,” the Times says, “the Army would drop over the coming years to between 440,000 and 450,000. That would be the smallest United States Army since 1940.”

Those proposals are sure to spark opposition from lawmakers, the Times notes.

On Morning Edition, though, NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman said the part of the Pentagon’s plan that might get the sharpest reaction is the military’s suggestions for ways to reduce the growth in spending on pay and benefits.

As Tom said, Pentagon officials warn that those costs “are eating us alive.” The average annual cost of pay and benefits for each active duty member of the military, for instance, has risen from about $54,000 a decade ago to $110,000 now, he said. The costs of health insurance and other benefits for retirees are also soaring.

Hagel has previously told NPR that because the rising pay, benefit and retirement costs are accounting for an increasingly large share of the Pentagon’s budget, they threaten to leave the nation with “a military that’s heavily compensated, but probably a force that’s not capable and not ready.” If those costs aren’t trimmed, he said, training and hardware will have to be cut instead.

But the Pentagon’s proposals for how to cut such expenses won’t be popular, Tom said. Among the suggestions Hagel is expected to outline: smaller pay raises for military personnel, higher enrollment fees and deductibles for their health insurance, smaller housing allowances and trims to the subsidies that keep prices low at commissaries.

Update at 1:50 p.m. ET. Further Cut In Army Personnel:

“Today, there are about 520,000 active-duty soldiers, which the Army had planned to reduce to 490,000,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel tells reporters at the Pentagon. But, he says, after reviews it has been determined “that since we are no longer sizing the force for prolonged stability operations, an army of this size is larger than required to meet the demands of our defense strategy. Given reduced budgets, it is also larger than we can afford to modernize and keep ready. We have decided to further reduce active-duty army end-strength to a range of 440-450,000 soldiers.”

Update at 1:45 p.m. ET. Sequestration Would Force Deeper Cuts, Hagel Says:

As he spells out the Pentagon’s plan, Hagel is repeatedly returning to one point — that the budget he’s proposing is less of a drag on the military than if the so-called sequestration budget cuts continue in coming years. He says, for example, that:

“If sequestration-level cuts are re-imposed in 2016 and beyond … the Air Force would need to make far more significant cuts to force structure and modernization. The Air Force would have to retire 80 more aircraft, including the entire KC-10 tanker fleet and the Global Hawk Block 40 fleet, as well as slow down purchases of the Joint Strike Fighter – resulting in 24 fewer F-35s purchased through Fiscal Year 2019 – and sustain ten fewer Predator and Reaper 24-hour combat air patrols. The Air Force would also have to take deep cuts to flying hours, which would prevent a return to adequate readiness levels.”

Update at 1:40 p.m ET. Special Operations Would Grow:

While Hagel is laying out a plan that would reduce the number of military personnel, the size of one type of force will increase, he says. “Our special operations forces will grow to 69,700 personnel from roughly 66,000 today,” under the plan, Hagel tells reporters at the Pentagon.

Update at 1:35 p.m. ET. Wants More Base Closures:

The Pentagon will “ask Congress for another round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) in 2017,” Hagel tells reporters. “I am mindful that Congress has not agreed to our BRAC requests of the last two years. 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.”

Update at 1:30 p.m. ET. “Difficult Decisions:”

“We must now adapt, innovate, and make difficult decisions to ensure that our military remains ready and capable — maintaining its technological edge over all potential adversaries,” Hagel says as he begins to outline his department’s budget proposal at a Pentagon news conference.

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