US Soldiers stand at attention on March 7 near Kandahar, Afghanistan. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Just as the budgeting office of the US Army was preparing to submit its fiscal 2015 budget, last-minute word from the White House turned everything on its head.
The original 2015 budget, along with the forward-looking future years defense plan (FYDP) for 2016-2019, called for the Army to fall to 420,000 soldiers by 2019, a significant cut from the 490,000 soldiers the Army is slated to field by the end of 2015.
But after being apprised of those numbers, the White House entered the fray “very late in the cycle,” according to Brig. Gen. John Ferrari, the Army’s deputy director of program analysis, and told the service that it would be able to keep 440,000 to 450,000 soldiers if Congress voids sequestration in 2016. If not, the 420,000 number would be implemented.
The problem is that there is no money budgeted to pay for that larger projected force, even if Congress somehow avoids sequestration in 2016 and beyond.
Speaking to a handful of reporters at the Pentagon on March 5, Ferrari said that since the FYDP does not reflect the new, higher troop number, all of the Army budget accounts “will need to be relooked and rebalanced” in 2016 and beyond.
Once the president came in “with his additional top line above sequester,” Ferrari said, “the force levels were left at the sequester level because we’ve got time to come back and fix that over the next couple years.”
The service is sitting down with the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation shop soon to work though long-term plans.
One source familiar with some of the goings-on in the Pentagon said the service is unhappy that its numbers have been tweaked slightly lower, to somewhere between 440,000 and 450,000, instead of holding the line at 450,000.
One senior Army official who spoke on the condition of anonymity maintains the Army can still fully meet the president’s Defense Strategic Guidance handed down in January 2012 if it stays at 490,000 soldiers.
But at 450,000, “we can do it, but that risk level goes up. The chief [of staff] has to go to the secretary of defense and say, ‘I can do this, but here’s what I can’t do.’ ”
The official said Army planners are “still working through” how to structure the force at 420,000, but what is certain is that “there will be things that we cannot do.”
The Army plans to fall to 60 brigade combat teams (BCTs) from 71 by the end of 2015.
Still, Maj. Gen. Karen Dyson, director of Army budgeting, said on March 5 that while the budget passed by Congress in January and the sequester relief the Pentagon is being given in 2015 gives the Army some budget stability in 2014 and 2015, “budget reductions are [still] outpacing the end-strength reductions”
And drawing down too quickly poses risks. BCTs comprise only 30 percent of the Army’s end strength, “so on any given day, the logistics, the communications, a lot of your medical, intelligence” activities carried out by combatant commanders around the globe come from the Army, another service official who spoke on background said. ■