Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, accompanied by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, briefs reporters at the Pentagon, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014, where he recommended shrinking the Army to its smallest size since the buildup to U.S. involvement in World War II in an effort to balance postwar defense needs with budget realities.
The proposed 2015 military budget unveiled last week by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledges that, with the end of 13 years of war, the United States’ global mission has changed.
Hagel’s $496 billion budget would trim more than 100,000 troops from today’s active duty force, retire hundreds of aging aircraft and warships, potentially close some military bases and other facilities, and cut some benefits for military personnel and retirees. The cuts might also entail reductions to National Guard units around the country, a move that has been criticized by Gov. Nikki Haley.
Some in Congress also were quick to take issue with the proposals, saying that cutting ground forces, ships and aircraft could put U.S. security at risk. But the criticisms seemed somewhat disingenuous.
Many of those complaining about the proposed cuts had supported the across-the-board sequestration caps agreed upon by Congress and President Obama last year. That agreement set defense spending for fiscal year 2015 at about $496 billion (the same amount as Hagel’s budget) and includes steep automatic annual reductions in across-the-board spending thereafter.
In other words, Congress agreed to the sequestration, which disproportionately hit military spending. Now the difficulty is deciding where to cut.
As always, the process also will be hindered by turf battles. While deficit cutters say they want to slash spending and waste, that doesn’t mean they want to see bases or defense-related industries closed in their districts or cuts in their state National Guard units.
Hagel’s budget is not focused solely on reducing military spending. In fact, his plan would raise defense spending another $115 billion over four years, beginning in 2016.
Obama also has called for a separate $26 billion appropriation next year for training and weapons upgrades.
While troop levels would shrink overall, the number of special operations forces used for training and counter-terrorism missions abroad would increase by several thousand to nearly 70,000. The old U-2 spy plane, used for decades for reconnaissance, would be mothballed, but it would be replaced by the unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk drone. Spending for cyber-warfare also would increase.
The proposals reflect a changing world and changing security challenges. Instead of standing armies facing off with tanks and artillery, the more realistic threat is small-scale terrorist attacks.
The old Cold War spheres of power no longer exist. The challenge now for the U.S. is to focus on Asia.
The public should largely ignore the scare tactics being used by those who claim proposed cuts would leave the nation vulnerable. The 2012 U.S. defense budget surpassed that of the next 10 nations combined, which included China, Russia, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy and Brazil.
Even with the proposed cuts, America’s would remain the most formidable military force on the planet.
The oft-quoted statistic – that the Army would be cutting its troops to the lowest levels since before World War II – also is somewhat misleading. The Army had 257,000 soldiers in uniform before World War II. Even if the Pentagon were to cut troop levels to 440,000 to 450,000 next year, that still would be considerably more than pre-World War II levels.
Hagel’s budget is just a starting point. Contractors and other special interests will have a significant impact on the final draft.
But the mission of the U.S. military must fit the times. And if we’re serious about cutting spending, the Pentagon can’t be immune.
Spending more than we can afford on personnel, weapons and facilities we don’t need does nothing to enhance our security.