New York Times Editorial Board
The Army’s plan to cut 40,000 troops, as well as 17,000 civilian employees, over the next two years is unsettling many American communities. Congressmen and senators in the affected districts are railing against the reductions and insisting they will fight to reverse them. But the cutbacks are a sensible and necessary move, and they should not come as a surprise since it was Congress that approved big cuts in federal defense spending.
Plans to shrink the active duty force to 450,000 troops from 490,000 have been known since February 2014 when Chuck Hagel, then the secretary of defense, made the proposal as part of his 2015 military budget. By 2017, the Army, which had 490,000 troops before the Sept 11 attacks and reached 570,000 troops during the Afghan and Iraq wars, will decline to its lowest level since World War II.
The latest troop cuts are causing a stir because the Army recently announced the domestic bases that will be affected, with Fort Benning, Ga., and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, among those taking the hardest hits. Army officials say those two bases will each lose 3,000 soldiers.
The United States has routinely drawn down and restructured the Army after major conflicts. The Army National Guard and Reserves, which played an important role in Iraq and Afghanistan, ensure that there will be another half million forces available for deployment in an emergency. The Marines add nearly 200,000 additional forces to the mix. Even with a smaller Army, America’s defenses will remain the world’s most formidable, especially given increased investment in specialties like special operations and cyber warfare.
A big driver of the troop cuts is the 2011 Budget Control Act, which mandated strict spending limits on defense and domestic programs over a decade.
Now Republicans, who control Congress, and hawkish Democrats are pretending to adhere to those restraints by insisting on harmful cuts to domestic programs while using a war-fighting slush fund to give the Pentagon some of what it wants.
If the budget restrictions are not lifted, the Army will be reduced further to 420,000 troops by the end of the 2019 fiscal year, and Army officials say that further cuts would leave them unable to meet their obligations. But many experts believe the Army can do its job even if it declines to 420,000 troops, and Congress can save billions if it approves a new round of base closings for a military that maintains at least 20 percent more real estate than it needs.
The reductions in troops and civilian staffing will be difficult for those who lose their jobs and for the communities that depend on military bases. The Army has programs that can help ease the transition, including special incentives for troops to retire early. Christopher Preble, a vice president of the Cato Institute, a think tank, says his research shows that many communities where bases are closed and troop levels are reduced “do adapt and recover,” and many eventually emerge with “a robust and more diversified economic base.”
President Obama and Congress need to make sure the Army is well positioned to do its job, but that does not mean maintaining bases and a level of troops that go beyond what the country needs and can afford.