US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, speaks alongside the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, about the Defense Department's budget during a Monday press conference at the Pentagon. (Agence France-Presse)
WASHINGTON — Congress and others in the defense community pushed back on Pentagon plans to cut 120,000 personnel from the active and reserve Army ranks, retire entire fleets of Air Force aircraft and sideline Navy ships.
“We believe that we will present a budget that can fulfill the commitments that we have to this nation, our people, to keep them safe and secure, and also the commitments that we have to our allies and partners around the world,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Monday of DoD’s $496 billion, 2015 budget proposal.
The proposal — which will officially be sent to Congress on March 4 — calls for an additional $26 billion through a separate request called the “Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative.” The money would go toward improving military readiness. The Obama administration plans to find this additional money by closing tax loopholes and reforming spending programs, officials said.
The budget proposal recommends keeping an aircraft carrier, but sidelining half of the Navy’s cruiser fleet. It would also retire the Air Force’s A-10 and U-2 fleets.
Pentagon officials warned they would have to make even deeper cuts beginning in 2016 if Congress does not repeal spending caps, known as sequestration, which are in effect through 2022.
“Continued sequestration cuts would compromise our national security both for the short and long term,” Hagel said. “Sequestration requires cuts so deep, so abrupt, so quickly that we cannot shrink the size of our military fast enough.”
A senior defense official said the Pentagon would not be able to execute the Obama administration’s military strategy if sequestration remained in place.
“[W]e see our force as being too small and out of balance with respect to readiness and modernization to be able to execute the president’s defense strategy,” the official said.
For that reason, the Pentagon’s 2015 budget proposal will include a five-year spending projection $115 billion above the sequestration budget caps.
DoD has proposed cutting 20,000 from the Army National Guard — dropping to 335,000 by 2019 — and 10,000 from the Army Reserve, bringing it to 195,000. These cuts were criticized by retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, president of the National Guard Association of the United States.
“We are disappointed, but hardly surprised, that today’s Pentagon budget preview ignores the advice of Congress and the nation’s governors that the National Guard should be more of a solution to the fiscal challenges facing our nation’s military,” Hargett said in a statement.
“And we are angered by continuing comments, such as those in Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s prepared text, that National Guard units ‘complement’ active forces,” he said. “For the last 12-plus years, Army and Air National Guard units have been nothing less than integral to the Army and Air Force accomplishing their missions around the globe. Service and Pentagon leaders have said as much countless times.”
House Armed Service Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., was critical of the budget plan during a lunch hour speech at the National Press Club.
McKeon questioned cutting the size of the military to a point it expects to be unable to fight two large ground wars simultaneously.
He singled out cuts the Obama administration has made and is proposing for the Navy. McKeon says he questions how the White House can trumpet an Asia-Pacific pivot, by definition one requiring naval ships, while cutting the size of the US Navy.
McKeon blasted what he sees as efforts to deal with the nation’s fiscal problems “on the backs of our military.”
One likely 2016 Republican presidential contender also expressed concerns, saying “this administration has been cutting defense since it came into office and doing little to address our real fiscal challenges.”
“Every day, we are reminded that the world remains as dangerous as ever and that we need a modern military to protect the American people and U.S. interests abroad,” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said in a statement. “It is vital that we maintain a strong US military that serves as a capable deterrent, ensures freedom of the seas, and provides security for ourselves and our allies. We also need a military that is able to project force globally when crises emerge, sometimes at a moment’s notice.”
Rubio said he is worried the 2015 military spending plan Hagel described “will put all of [those] goals at risk.”
“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,” Rubio said. “Cutting key Air Force and naval capabilities just as we are trying to increase our presence in the Pacific does not make strategic sense. I am concerned that we are on a path to repeat the mistakes we’ve made during past attempts to cash in on expected peace dividends that never materialized.”
McKeon and the other members of the so-called “Big Eight” — the Republican and Democratic chairs and ranking members of the congressional defense committees — were briefed by senior Pentagon leaders on the spending plan Monday morning.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, targeted his remarks on the sequestration cuts, calling on his colleagues to end the remaining eight years of the decade-spanning reductions to planned defense and domestic spending.
“In a challenging and dangerous world, the Department of Defense is tasked with providing for national security, but Congress continues to fail to provide our military leaders with financial security and stability,” Smith said in a statement.
“Sequestration imposed mindless cuts that hurt military readiness in fiscal year 2013,” Smith said. “If Congress does not act, sequestration will go back into effect in fiscal year 2016 and beyond. Secretary Hagel clearly articulated that future uncertainty is making it difficult for the department to plan.”
Pentagon officials said that if Congress chooses not to support the plan as is, it will put the military’s readiness at risk.
“It’s hard to cut this amount of money out of anything and expect people to cheer about it,” a senior military official said. “For every efficiency that’s denied, every program cut that’s overturned, every element of old force structure or unnecessary base structure we’re required to keep, there’s going to have to be a decrease in readiness or modernization somewhere else that will only add to risk that we might be taking in the future.”
While some criticized the Pentagon’s budget for making too many cuts, other criticized the Obama administration for proposing to increase defense spending above the sequestration caps.
“From the proposal to break the caps starting in FY 2016 to the proposal for ‘an investment fund’ that would undo most of the cuts required by the sequester, the Obama administration is attempting to walk away from needed Pentagon budget reductions,” said William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.
“The truth is that there is still plenty to cut while maintaining the strongest military force in the world.” ■