© The Financial Times Ltd 2015 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
February 24, 2014 11:22 pm
Chuck Hagel, the US defence secretary, announced steep cuts to the army and to several weapons programmes on Monday in order to meet lower budgets, but his proposed changes are likely to generate strong opposition from Congress in an election year.
Outlining what he described as the “difficult choices” now facing the Pentagon, Mr Hagel also called for a new round of base closures and for limits to the benefits being offered to active and retired members of the military.
“This is a time for reality,” he told a press conference at the Pentagon on Monday. “This is a budget that recognises the reality of the magnitude of our fiscal challenges, as well as the dangerous world that we live in.”
The plan outlined by Mr Hagel is the Pentagon’s attempt to meet new spending guidelines from the recent budget agreement in Congress, which spared the military from much steeper cuts but which still required it to trim some of its operations.
The proposals, however, must be approved by Congress where many members are likely to be against the cuts to some of the programmes announced. Mr Hagel’s suggestions also run against the advice of some of his top commanders.
Leading members of Congress, including Republican senator Lindsey Graham, have already turned a previous Pentagon proposal to reduce spending on military pensions into a central issue in re-election campaigning this year. However, on Monday Mr Hagel said that the Pentagon needed to take new steps to limit pay increases for the military, increase health premiums paid by active and retired service members and reduce some other perks, such as subsidised goods on sale at bases.
With the war in Iraq over and the mission in Afghanistan ending this year, Mr Hagel recommended that the army be reduced to 440,000-450,000, down from 520,000 at the moment and lower than a previous target of a 490,000-strong force.
“Since we are no longer sizing the force for prolonged stability operations, an army of this size is larger than required to meet the demands of our defence strategy,” he said.
Before the 9/11 attacks, the army had 482,000 soldiers, which then grew to 566,000. The new target would be the lowest level since before the second world war and is getting close to figures that army chief of staff Ray Odierno has claimed would be too small to meet national security needs. Under the new plan, however, the number of troops in special forces would increase by 6 per cent.
The Air Force is to eliminate its fleet of 300 A-10 jets, which were used heavily in Iraq and Afghanistan to support ground troops. The defence secretary was also critical of the expensive new littoral combat ship, which has been designed to operate in the Asia-Pacific but which has been criticised for being too vulnerable to attack.
After considerable internal debate, Mr Hagel said the US would keep its 11 aircraft carrier groups, which have strong support in Congress, however the Pentagon did not have the funds at the moment to refurbish the USS George Washington.
Randy Forbes, a Republican member of Congress and senior member of the House armed services committee, said the decision amounted to “abandoning a ship for which the taxpayers have already paid”.
However, Mr Hagel sidestepped another possible controversy with Congress with the decision to mothball the U2 surveillance plane and to replace it with Global Hawk drones. Last year, the Pentagon announced the opposite decision but was forced to keep buying the drones after Congress objected.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.
Sign up for email briefings to stay up to date on topics you are interested in