Defense cuts outlined: Army would be cut to pre-WWII size

02/25/2014 12:05 AM

02/25/2014 12:05 AM

Sweeping budget and personnel cuts proposed Monday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel would hit some military bases hard while protecting others.

The Defense Department proposed cutting the Army to its smallest size in 74 years, slashing a class of attack jets and rolling back personnel costs in an effort to adjust a department buoyed by a decade of war to an era of leaner budgets.

The five-year budget blueprint outlined by Hagel reflects a willingness by the Pentagon to make deep cuts to personnel strength to invest in technology and equipment as it eases off a war footing.

“The development and proliferation of more advanced military technologies by other nations mean that we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies and in space can no longer be taken for granted,” Hagel told a news conference.

With the Army targeted to lose as many as 80,000 active-duty troops from its current 520,000-strong force, reaching its smallest size since before World II, major installations from Fort Jackson, S.C., to Fort Hood, Texas, could see their operations scaled back significantly.

The proposal to shrink the world’s mightiest military force comes as the United States seeks to redefine its role on the world stage, with the Iraq war over and U.S. combat engagement in Afghanistan winding down, a two-front strategy involving lengthy occupations that severely tested military capabilities.

It also reflects the competing demands of spending restraints, national security and politics.

Eliminating two dozen A-10 attack planes at Whiteman Air Force Base in western Missouri, for instance, is part of a broader move to retire all of the aging Warthogs, saving the Pentagon several billion dollars. But lawmakers from Missouri and other states will certainly object.

Meanwhile, installations such as Fort Bragg, N.C., Joint Base Lewis-McChord outside Tacoma, Wash., and Fort Campbell, Ky., would likely emerge largely unscathed from the cuts because of their specialized missions.

Hagel said he had recommended the realignment plan to President Barack Obama, who is expected to present his annual budget to Congress next week.

“This is the first time in 13 years we will be presenting a budget to the Congress of the United States that’s not a war-footing budget,” Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon.

The most startling part of the Pentagon plan is the proposal to cut the active-duty Army to between 440,000 and 450,000 soldiers.

Army Secretary John McHugh said in a statement that proposed cuts “provided equal doses of reality and opportunity,” but he acknowledged that the downsizing would “be a difficult road.”

Hagel is recommending a 1 percent pay increase for military and civilian employees to match an increase that White House aides said Obama will seek for all federal workers after a three-year wage freeze.

Many lawmakers almost certainly will oppose hits on installations in their states and resist Hagel’s call for a new round of base closings.

“This is another dumb idea,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Even some Democrats who have burnished reputations as fiscal hawks responded coolly to some aspects of the spending plan for the Pentagon.

“I will be taking a hard look at its new budget proposal to make sure it still provides for the strongest national defense,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee.

McCaskill and Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, are part of a newly formed congressional coalition to save the A-10 from extinction.

Any talk of defense cuts sends a chill through communities anchored by military bases in Kansas and Missouri.

Whiteman Air Force Base, for instance, is “critical, just critical” to the surrounding economy, said Tracy Brantner, the executive director of the Johnson County, Mo., Economic Development Corp.

Analysts see almost no chance that the base, home to the B-2 stealth bomber, could be closed in the foreseeable future.

Yet it’s also home to the A-10 Thunderbolt II ground attack plane, which Hagel wants to retire.

Two dozen A-10s have been based at Whiteman, about 60 miles southeast of Kansas City, since 1994 as part of the 442nd Fighter Wing of the Air Force Reserves. The total workforce at Whiteman fluctuates between 7,000 and 8,000.

Whiteman represents just a fraction of the A-10 force, which is scattered across the country.

More dramatic hits to various local economies could come with the shrinking of Army personnel numbers that Hagel called for.

Fort Riley, on the outskirts of Junction City, Kan., provides an unrivaled stalwart to the local economy.

“We are one of the original ‘green communities,’ ” said Tom Weigand, president and CEO of the Junction City Area Chamber of Commerce. “The green suits are everywhere here.”

Already, the community has a glut of housing built in preparation for the return about 10 years ago of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, known popularly as the “Big Red One.”

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