US Army Chief Gen. Ray Odierno is expected to announce a plan this afternoon to cut at least 10 brigade combat teams (BCT) from the active force. (File)
WASHINGTON — In a briefing on Tuesday afternoon that has ignited furious debate on Capitol Hill and in communities that depend on nearby military installations as a key part of their economy, Army Chief Gen. Ray Odierno announced a sweeping plan to cut 12 brigade combat teams (BCT) from the active force by 2017.
The announcement adds critical details to how the service will reduce its end strength by 80,000 soldiers by 2017, but could also be merely the first round in a series of even deeper cuts that the force will endure if sequestration remains the law of the land in 2014 and after.
The reduction of BCTs from 45 to 33 doesn’t tell the whole story of what the Army is doing, however, since the service will protect its overall combat punch by retaining 95 out of its 98 combat battalions while taking cuts in headquarters positions across the brigades.
To do this, the service will increase the number of maneuver battalions in each brigade from two to three, while adding engineering and fires capabilities to each unit.
Army leadership has for months been talking about reducing the Army’s 45 BCTs by about eight — it had already identified two heavy brigades stationed in Europe that will stand down by the end of 2013 — as the Army winnows its force structure from more than 560,000 personnel to 490,000 by 2017.
The general called the moves “one of the largest organizational changes probably since World War II” for the service.
While the cut of 80,000 soldiers will impact 15 Army installations in the United States, brigades stationed in Alaska, Hawaii and South Korea are to remain untouched since they are a critical part of the so-called rebalance of American military and political attention to the Asia/Pacific region.
But that doesn’t mean they’ll be immune forever.
“If we go though full sequestration there’s going to be another reduction in brigades, there’s no way around it,” Odierno warned. There will also be reductions in aviation assets and other critical enabling functions.
Odierno said the Army is already planning to cut an additional BCT later this year or next, and that the sequester could force him to slash another 100,000 active duty soldiers from the roster.
Overall, the moves announced today will leave the Army with 12 armored brigade combat teams, 14 infantry brigade combat teams and seven Stryker brigade combat teams in the active force, but the chief said, “my guess is that over the next couple of years that will adjust a little bit,” with the heavy armor brigades taking a bigger hit.
Army leadership envisions cutting two more armor brigades in the coming years, while keeping the same number of infantry brigades and adding another Stryker brigade.
As a result, heavy systems like the nascent Ground Combat Vehicle would likely be purchased in smaller numbers.
“We need to reduce the cost of us fielding our armor brigades,” Odierno said, adding that as the services begin to submit their budgets for fiscal years 2015-2019, “you’ll start to see some of those [procurement cuts]” for heavy armor brigades.”
This puts into limbo Abrams tank modernization efforts and the new Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle, which the Defense Acquisition Board is scheduled to decide whether to move forward with by July 1. The Army wants to buy about 2,900 AMPVs starting in 2018.
These cuts all come as a result of the mandatory $487 billion in spending reductions required by the 2011 Budget Control Act, which have been weighing heavily on Army accounts. The Army’s share of that cut between now and 2020 is $170 billion.
Reaction from Capitol Hill was swift, with Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., saying the Army’s plan “[is] putting us so close to a hollow force that that’ll be the next announcement you hear.”
Asked by Defense News whether he and other senators will attempt to block the Army’s plans when the upper chamber takes up Pentagon policy and spending legislation later this year, Inhofe said, “We’ll do everything we can.”
As an elevator door closed between Inhofe and a reporter, he added: “It’s the last step in disarming America.”
SASC Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., an Obama administration ally, seemed resigned to the plan.
“I’m not sure they have much choice,” Levin said, citing defense spending caps etched in stone by the 2011 Budget Control Act. “They’ve got to find a way to implement the law that was passed by Congress.”
Levin chuckled lightly when informed of Inhofe’s intention to block the plan on the Senate floor.
Inhofe would “have to replace it,” Levin said, meaning any move to keep one or more of the 12 BCTs open would have to identify other defense or federal cuts to pay for it.
“That’s not only a lot of money; some people don’t recognize what we did here. Some people have said, ‘We haven’t done enough on spending.’ Well, [expletive] — excuse my language — this is kind of proof that we did a heck of a lot on spending.”
Other lawmakers, such as House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., were relieved that the cuts to installations in their states weren’t worse.
“I am very disappointed that Fort Carson is one of ten bases around the country that will lose a brigade combat team by the year 2017,” Lamborn said in a statement. “However, the blow is considerably softened by the fact that all but 750 of those soldiers will remain at Fort Carson and be reassigned to other missions.”
The Army anticipates that Fort Carson will actually increase in size by 1,800 active duty Army personnel in coming years.
With a military facility no longer in his district, House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., was free to focus on the political moves needed to remove the defense spending caps and void sequestration.
“If sequestration is not removed, then more extensive force structure changes will need to be made to accommodate the severity of the sequester cuts,” he said in a statement.
Smith charged his fellow lawmakers, particularly Republicans, with making it “very difficult for the [Defense] Department to accommodate these cuts.
“Congress blocked each and every one of these attempts and has now forced the military to make a difficult choice: Maintain a larger force that will hollow out over time or convert to a smaller force,” Smith said. “Today’s announcement demonstrates that the Army chose the latter.”