US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel for the first time on Wednesday offered details of how today's budget cuts will impact the military over the next decade. (File)
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel for the first time on Wednesday offered details of how today’s budget cuts will impact the military over the next decade, suggesting the Army and Marine Corps force levels will drop to historic lows, the Navy’s carrier fleet will face major cuts and some fighter jet squadrons will be permanently eliminated.
Military compensation also 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 just as the long-term budget cuts known as sequestration were taking effect across the force.
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. “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 secretary said.
The Pentagon has been examining several budget scenarios, including one that assumes 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 from the current target of 490,000 down to “between 380,000 and 450,000 troops,” he said. For the 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.” And the Air Force could lose as many as five tactical fighter squadrons and also face reductions to the C-130 fleet and the retirement of older bombers, Hagel said.
“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 maintain a larger force structure 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 decade-long modernization holiday.”
Hagel’s comments come the day before two top Pentagon officials, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, are scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill about the strategic review on Thursday.