U.S. Army soldiers marching in the St. Patrick's Day Parade, March 16, 2013, in New York,, NY.
Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Pentagon budget confronts sequestration, end of Afghanistan war

Updated

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced budget cuts Monday that will shrink the army to its smallest since before World War II and are aimed at reflecting the realities of continued government austerity a military without an ongoing ground conflict. 

The impending end of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan presents a clear opportunity for the Pentagon to shift its priorities away from a permanent war footing, Hagel said. But he cautioned that reducing Army troop levels would increase the risk involved in protracted or simultaneous ground operations, as the U.S. saw during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“As a consequence of large budget cuts, our future force will assume additional risks in certain areas,” Hagel said in his remarks at a press briefing Monday.

Hagel also raised the specter of disaster if Congress does not reverse sequestration cuts to the military that would set in at deeper levels two years from now.

“Sequestration requires cuts so deep, so abrupt, so quickly, that we cannot shrink the size of our military fast enough,” Hagel said. “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, Hagel went on, “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.”

In Hagel’s proposal, the Air Force will slow down – but not stop - the growth of its drone fleet, which, “while effective against insurgents and terrorists,” Hagel said, “cannot operate in the face of enemy aircraft and modern air defenses.” Unmanned aircraft have played an increasing role in U.S. military and counterterrorism efforts. Separate from their cost, human rights groups have questions about the legality of drone strikes, particularly in regions where the U.S. has not officially declared war.

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Some elements of the Defense Department’s budget will escape relatively unscathed. Hagel announced that the Pentagon will add 3,700 personnel to its special operations forces for “counterrorism and crisis response.”  In addition, funding will not be cut for the Air Force’s F-35 plan. The F-35’s exorbitant cost and repeated delays have made it a source of controversy.

Even after the cuts, the U.S. military’s budget will still far outstrip every other nation in the world, and the Pentagon continues to spend money to maintain bases from a time when Russia remained America’s main adversary. The Pentagon will conduct a review this spring with an eye toward reducing spending through cuts and closures at bases overseas, Hagel said.

This to go after “Republican members of Congress started attacking the budget immediately”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio decried the cuts, saying in a statement, “Reducing the size of the Army to its lowest levels in 70 years does not accurately reflect the current security environment, in which the administration’s own officials have noted the threats facing our country are more diffuse than ever.” Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, was more measured, saying only that he has concerns about the plan’s “potential to harm America’s military readiness.”

While Congress voted to undo cuts to military retiree benefits on February 12, some cuts will still be made to compensation. Hagel emphasized that his recommendations do not cut pay. Instead, the new plan would change housing allowances, increase health-care costs for retirees and some active-duty family members, and reduce subsidies to military commissaries. Hagel called on everyone involved in determining military compensation to work together to make changes all at once in order to reduce economic uncertainty for members of the armed forces and their families.

Hagel acknowledged that his proposed compensation cuts would be controversial, and they have already drawn criticism from some veterans. In a statement, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff said, “We know the Defense Department must make difficult budget decisions, but these cuts would hit servicemembers, making it harder for them and their families to make ends meet. Last week we learned that members of the military redeemed nearly $104 million in food stamps at commissaries in the previous year. Now the Defense Department wants to cut subsidies that servicemembers use to pay for diapers for their kids and to put bread on the table. IAVA will fight any effort to take away the benefits that American servicemen and women have earned and are promised.”

“Cuts to benefits make it more difficult for the military to attract and retain qualified personnel,” Rieckhoff said. “Maintaining the strongest all volunteer force requires a commitment to its people, and this proposed budget combined with Congress’s recent willingness to cut retiree benefits, puts the system at risk.”

Republican members of Congress started attacking the budget immediately.

Rep. Buck McKeon of California, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, called the proposal an attempt to “solve our financial problems on the backs of our military — and that can’t be done.” Fellow Armed Services Committee member Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, said in an interview on Bloomberg TV - before Hagel spoke - that the cuts would leave the US too vulnerable, and that he would push to increase the budget.

“The world is not getting to be a safer place. This is not the time for us to begin to retreat, and certainly not the time to cut our military,” Turner said.

Pentagon budget confronts sequestration, end of Afghanistan war

Updated