By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
The Pentagon’s proposals to reduce the Army to pre-World War II levels and modify some benefits for troops and retirees may seem unsettling to a nation that prides itself on having the world’s most capable military. But these ideas, part of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s 2015 military budget, reflect a necessary and more prudent realism as America ends 13 years at war.
Last year’s proposed budget was much less practical, ignoring the country’s postrecession financial stresses as well as the political pressures from Congressional Republicans determined to slash government spending. This year’s $496 billion budget request, which conforms to revised budget caps set by Congress, begins, at last, to make more of the tough choices required by declining resources, skyrocketing personnel costs and changing threats around the globe.
Even so, tiresome budgetary games are still being played. On top of Mr. Hagel’s budget, President Obama is expected to ask Congress to approve a separate $26 billion appropriation next year so that the Pentagon can increase training and upgrade aircraft and weapons systems. Mr. Hagel has offered a plan that would raise defense spending another $115 billion over four years, beginning in 2016. And then there is the special off-budget overseas contingency account for which the Pentagon has yet to plug in a number. That account, which was about $85 billion in 2014, is supposed to cover costs for Afghanistan, but the Pentagon has often used it for shortfalls in operating expenses.
The headlines have focused on Mr. Hagel’s plans to shrink the Army by 2019 to its smallest level since before World War II, which is to say somewhere between 440,000 and 450,000 troops, from a post-9/11 peak of 570,000. (Many experts say the number could go to 420,000.) But this reduction should not alarm anyone.
The truth is that the United States cannot afford the larger force indefinitely, and it doesn’t need it. The country is tired of large-scale foreign occupations and, in any case, Pentagon planners do not expect they will be necessary in the foreseeable future. Even with a smaller Army, America’s defenses will remain the world’s most formidable, especially given Mr. Hagel’s proposed increase in investment in special operations, cyberwarfare and rebalancing the American presence in Asia.
One of the biggest problems the Pentagon faces is the issue of pay and benefits, which if left unaddressed could eventually consume most of the military budget, crowding out other vital expenses like weapons modernization. In February, under pressure from veterans groups, Congress rejected the Obama administration’s proposal to make a small cut in the growth of some military pensions. This time, Mr. Hagel made a strong case for “fair and responsible adjustments” in compensation. His proposals include slowing the growth of tax-free housing allowances for military personnel and increasing health insurance deductibles and some co-payments for military retirees and some family members of active servicemen. Even more reforms are needed, but these are a reasonable start.
Major cuts in the budget plan would eliminate the fleet of Air Force A-10 attack aircraft and retire the U-2 spy plane in favor of the remotely piloted Global Hawk. But, again, this plan could go further, reducing or delaying the purchase of F-35 fighters, given the plane’s serious flaws, and reducing carrier groups from 11 to 10 or fewer. Mr. Hagel also said that the administration “will have to consider every tool at our disposal to further reduce infrastructure” if Congress pushes budget cuts while blocking the closure of unneeded military bases.
Congress, as is often the case, hypocritically pushes for draconian budget cuts while insisting on protecting favored programs under the guise of national security. Pentagon leaders acknowledge that reducing defense spending and reshaping the military involves some risk. But this should be a matter of honest, informed debate, unburdened by the wishes, scare tactics and fears of lobbyists.