By COLIN CLARK
PENTAGON: In a grim presentation before the press corps, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel outlined deep cuts to the Army, Air Force he may have to make to cope with the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
Reaction was swift on Capitol HIll and the think tanks that inform so much of what senior Pentagon leaders think.
The top Democrat on the House Armed Services, Rep. Adam Smith, laid the blame squarely in the lap of his colleagues.
“The single biggest take away from Strategic Choices Management Review is that Congress, by allowing sequestration to exist, is abdicating its constitutional responsibility to responsibly fund the military and to provide for the common defense. Through sequestration, Congress is forcing the Department of Defense to make some extremely difficult decisions that will undermine military readiness and put more unneeded stress on our troops, civilian employees, and military retirees,” he said in statement.
Just in case anyone wasn’t clear on just what Smith meant by “Congress,” Smith added this line:
“The SCMR drives home the point that Republican budget policies of fiscal austerity and intentionally starving the Federal Government of revenue put our national security at risk.”
Some of his colleagues are trying to do something. And it’s a pretty exciting bipartisan duo. Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Blue Dog Democrat Rep. Jim Cooper, ranking member of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, are expected to present a bill to provide DoD with flexibility in handling sequestration cuts.
A very different, less political line on Hagel’s comments was taken by one respected defense analyst, who called them “remarkable” because “they publicly seek to break — for the first time by a modern SecDef — the so called ‘golden ratio’ of budget shares between the military services,” Mackenzie Eaglen, defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute and a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, told me in an email.
“Clearly, releasing these findings will achieve the intended effect of shocking politicians into a new level of awareness about how bad and painful this could really get,” she added, pointing to the risks Hagel took in publicly outlining his options. “On the flip side, once you put these reduced priorities and management efficiencies out there in the public domain at all, they risk becoming foregone conclusions or expectations of what’s to come (versus being perceived as possibilities, they become a blueprint for the next three years regardless of budgets).”
Here are the options Hagel outlined for the Army. The least painful option would bring the Army down to 420,000 and 450,000 in the active component and between 490,000 and 530,000 in the reserves. The Air Force could cut up to five tactical aircraft squadrons “and cut the size of the C-130 fleet with minimal risk.”
Hagel said these cuts would mean the country “could still execute the priority missions” determined by the latest defense strategy.
The second option would bring the Army lower, slice the nation’s carrier force by almost one-third, bring the Marines down to as small as 150,000 troops and cut “older” Air Force bombers.
“We would protect investments to counter anti-access and area-denial threats, such as the long range strike family of systems, submarine cruise-missile upgrades, and the Joint Strike Fighter,” Hagel said. “And we would continue to make cyber capabilities and special operations forces a high priority.”
For those who think the Defense Secretary may be playing the game his predecessor Leon Panetta did, crying wolf and being left to look a bit foolish when the world did not end when sequestration came into effect, Hagel said during the press conference that he told his people they must not exaggerate, adding he didn’t want anyone coming back and saying the Pentagon had oversold the impact of sequestration.
But William Hartung, head of the arms and security project at the Center for International Policy, didn’t buy that, saying Hagel’s actions “are too little, too late. Key questions like changes in military compensation — and even how to cut the $52 billion in FY 2014 — have yet again been kicked down the road.” Hartung accused Hagel of of understating DoD’s “ability to make sensible procurement cuts by protecting systems like the overpriced, under-performing F-35 combat aircraft.”
Hartung concluded that the SCMR and Hagel’s speech today “is that this is a more low key version of ‘the sky is falling’ rhetoric favored by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. A 10% cut over ten years will still leave us with over $5 trillion in spending over that time period, and a budget well above the Cold War average.”
Hagel made clear that no final decisions have been made yet. That will be the White House’s job.