By Carlo Muñoz
The Defense Department is considering cutting total troop numbers and benefits far beyond what service leaders have said is sustainable, as part of its new strategy to deal with the White House’s sequestration plan.
In its first official plan on how the Department of Defense (DOD) will deal with the $500 billion in defense budget cuts under sequestration, Pentagon leaders layed out a number of devastating scenarios that will “trade away” key combat capabilities over the next decade.
“This strategic choice would result in a force that would be technologically dominant, but would be much smaller and able to go fewer places and do fewer things,” Defense Secretary Hagel said during Wednesday.
His comments came during DOD’s official roll out of its sequestration plan — known inside the Pentagon as the Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR).
The SCMR findings will be key in preventing Congress and the White House from making “senseless, non-strategic cuts that damage military readiness, disrupt operations, and erode our technological edge,” Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon.
The further reductions to troops, weapons and benefits will provide political ammunition to defense hawks on Capitol Hill, who argue the Pentagon is shouldering more than its fair share of the budget cuts under sequestration.
The report’s findings will also be a likely windfall for congressional Republicans, who are pressuring the White House to cut entitlement spending and social welfare programs, rather than gut Pentagon coffers.
But on Wednesday, Hagel called upon Congress to set aside partisan priorities and ensure the scenarios outlined in the SCMR review do not become reality.
“It is the responsibility of our nation’s leadership to work together to replace the mindless and irresponsible policy of sequestration,” the Pentagon chief said.
Under one scenario, Pentagon officials would shrink the Army down to between 380,000 and 450,000 troops, while the Marine Corps will be slashed down from 182,000 to “between 150,00 to 175,000” Marines, according to the strategic review.
On the Navy side, DOD leaders will be forced to cut the number of aircraft carrier strike groups down from 11 to “eight or nine,” according to Hagel.
In June, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno announced plans to cut 12 brigade combat teams in an effort to get the total force down to 490,000 troops by 2017. That number would put the Army at its smallest size since 2001.
That same month, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos warned that any additional cuts would force the Corps into constant deployments with no chance for troops to come back home between combat tours,
“If we go to war, we are going to go and come home [only] when it is over,” Amos said at the time.
On Wednesday, Hagel said the proposed troop cuts would be offset by increased investments in advanced weapons, such as the Joint Strike Fighter, cyber warfare and special operations forces.
There is a chance that DOD could salvage its total troop numbers, but the department would have to scuttle a number of ongoing or future weapons to keep those troops, resulting in a “decade-long modernization holiday,” Hagel said.
“These . . . approaches illustrate the difficult trade-offs and strategic choices that would face the department in a scenario where sequester-level cuts continue,” the Pentagon chief said.
On the benefits side, the SCMR plan will begin transitioning retired military personnel from the Pentagon’s insurance plan to private-sector plans.
Pentagon leaders will also limit pay raises for military and civilian employees and decrease DOD subsidies for housing and cost of living expenses for overseas personnel.
DoD has no choice but to consider compensation changes of greater magnitude for military and civilian personnel,” Hagel said Wednesday.
“Going forward . . . DOD, and ultimately the President, will decide on a strategic course that best preserves our ability to defend our national security interests under this very daunting budget scenario,” Hagel added.
To help administration officials pick that strategic course, DOD and service leaders will begin submitting two versions of the Pentagon’s annual budget plan to the White House over the next four years, beginning in 2015.
The dual budget submissions will outline service and DOD spending plans “one at the President’s budget level and one at sequester-level caps,” Hagel said.
But the Pentagon chief made clear that whatever path President Obama chooses, based on the strategic review, it will not be enough to deal with the severe impact of sequestration on U.S. military and national security priorities.
“If DoD combines all the reduction options described . . . the savings fall well short of meeting sequester-level cuts, particularly during the first five years of these steep, decade-long reductions,” Hagel said.
“These shortfalls will be even larger if Congress is unwilling to enact changes to compensation or adopt other management reforms and infrastructure cuts,” he added.
Congressional opposition to the proposals proposed under the SCMR plan “must be engaged and overcome, or we will be forced to take even more draconian steps in the future,” according to Hagel.