WASHINGTON — Lawmakers are lining up to decry an US Army plan to cut 40,000 and shrink the size of the force from 490,000 to 450,000 by 2018.
The 450,000 figure was already known, but details of the plan, reported by USA Today, include 17,000 civilian lay-offs, and downsized brigades at Fort Benning, Georgia, and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska.
"People who believe the world is safer, that we can do with less defense spending and 40,000 fewer soldiers, will take this as good news. I am not one of those people," Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Wednesday.
Thornberry's office said troop level reductions "are one of the few places where the military can achieve the savings mandated by defense cuts in the time required. The House Armed Services Committee has consistently warned about the size and pace of reductions in both end strength and defense spending and the negative impact on the country's national security."
The House and Senate approved cutting Army end-strength to 475,000 in 2016, and provided funding in the bill.
The president's proposed 2016 budget downsized the active component at a slower pace, from 490,000 soldiers to 475,000 by 2017.
Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the Army's plan a "dangerous consequence of budget-driven strategy."
"With global instability only increasing, and with just 33 percent of the Army's brigade combat teams ready for deployment and decisive operations, there is simply no strategic basis to cut Army force structure below the pre-9/11 level of 490,000," McCain said.
Army Secretary John McHugh gave Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, the unwelcome news in a phone call Wednesday that the cuts include 4,350 soldiers from military installations in his state as part of the plan.
In Georgia, Fort Stewart will lose about 950 soldiers, and Fort Benning will lose 3,400 soldiers, Isakson said McHugh told him. Isakson said additional cuts are expected but have not been announced.
"I am demanding answers from the Department of Defense on how they are justifying these troop cuts in Georgia," Isakson said. "We cannot afford to reduce our military readiness at a time when the threats to our security here at home and throughout the world are growing at an alarming rate. Instead, we should be using our military to send a clear signal to the rest of the world that America has no intention of standing down in the fight against the threat of terrorism worldwide."
Isakson said he had taken steps to block a Senate vote on the president's nomination of a new congressional liaison for the Defense Department "in light of the department's failure to give Congress a heads up before these cuts were made public."
Should Congress fail to reach a deal to avert sequestration budget cuts, end-strength reductions could get worse. Budget writers warn, as senior Army officials have in recent months, that end-strength under sequestration would fall to 420,000 by 2020 — a drawdown "detrimental to meeting the defense strategy."
McCain called for a bipartisan solution to end "mindless sequestration," which would cut Army end-strength to 420,000, "increasing the risk that in a crisis, we will have too few soldiers who could enter a fight without proper training or equipment.
"Any conceivable strategic rationale for this cut to Army end-strength has been overturned by the events of the last few years from the rise of ISIL, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Ebola crisis, and more," McCain said.
Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno said in 2014, that the service needs a minimum of 450,000 soldiers, 335,000 in the Guard, and 195,000 in the US Army Reserve. With 20 percent of its numbers in the institutional Army, it cannot afford to drop further and meet the nation's national security demands — "30,000 makes a huge difference in the capabilities that we have," he said.
During the appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations, Odierno emphasized how busy the Army is. Nine of the Army's 10 active duty divisions remain involved to some degree in "named operations," or regional engagements around the world, he said.
Through the budget, the Army sought to slow personnel cuts from 20,000 per year to 15,000 per year along an "adjusted draw down ramp," Army Vice Chief of Staff Daniel Allyn said in a recent interview. The move was meant to mitigate ongoing personnel turbulence brought about by cutting so many troops so fast.
The Army is expected to announce precisely where the cuts will land imminently. Allyn had said the Army's reorganization efforts would be ongoing through the end of the year.
"The challenge is we have taken all of the slack out of the rope," Allyn said. "We have reduced overseas to the maximum that we could already. The cuts are going to come largely within the continental United States. They are going to be very impactful. Our first hope is that Congress will pass the president's budget. Then we will exert the leadership necessary to eliminate sequestration as a continuing threat to our national security so that we can stop the bleeding at 450,000."