WASHINGTON — The Pentagon said on Monday it would shrink the U.S. Army to pre-World War II levels, eliminate the popular A-10 aircraft and reduce military benefits in order to meet 2015 spending caps, setting up an election-year fight with the Congress over national defense priorities.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, discussing the Pentagon’s plan for meeting its new spending caps ahead of the formal budget presentation on March 4, advanced a number of ideas that have been attempted in the past but rejected by Congress.
Members of the New Hampshire congressional delegation said the proposed cuts need to be weighed against the impact to national security and the wellbeing of veterans.
“While the Pentagon can and must do more to cut inefficiency and find places to save, I am concerned that the defense budget is not being driven by our national security interests and the real threats we face in a dangerous world,” Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte said in a statement. “I will closely scrutinize the Defense Department’s 2015 budget request to examine its potential impact on Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and the New Hampshire National Guard.”
A spokeswoman for Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said: “As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, (Shaheen) understands that all adjustments to military capabilities need to be carefully considered with our best national security interests in mind.”
Democratic Rep. Ann McLane Kuster stressed her commitment to military families, as well as veterans. “We must also ensure that we do not weaken vital benefits for our honorable veterans, who made great personal sacrifices to serve and protect our nation,” she said in a statement.
Fellow Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said she’s closely studying the proposal.
“It’s going to be hard to convince me that a personnel cut this big is in the best interests of our national security, but I also recognize the difficulties faced by the Department of Defense since sequestration was passed in 2011,” Shea-Porter said in a statement, referring to the budget measure she opposed.
Army of 450,000
Hagel has argued that as the United States military winds down its war in Afghanistan and looks to cut billions in defense spending, the Pentagon plans to continue shifting its focus to the Asia-Pacific region and will no longer need a land Army of the size currently planned,
The department plans to reduce the size of the Army to between 440,000 and 450,000 soldiers, he said. The Army currently has about 520,000 soldiers and had been planning to draw down to about 490,000 in the coming year.
A reduction to 450,000 would be the Army’s smallest since 1940, before the United States entered World War II, when it had a troop strength of 267,767, according to Army figures. The Army’s previous post-war low was 479,426 in 1999.
The planned cut in the Army’s size comes as the Defense Department is in the process of reducing projected spending by nearly a trillion dollars over a 10-year period.
A two-year budget deal in Congress in December gave the Pentagon some relief from the budget cuts, but still forced it to reduce spending in the 2014 fiscal year by $30 billion.
The Pentagon’s budget for the 2015 fiscal year is $496 billion, roughly the same as in 2014 but still lower than had been envisioned last year.
“This will be the first budget to fully reflect the transition DoD is making after 13 years of war, the longest conflict in our nation’s history,” Hagel said.
“We chose further reductions in troop strength and force structure in every military service — active and reserve — in order to sustain our readiness and technological superiority and to protect critical capabilities,” he said.
Republican governors accused President Barack Obama of making politically motivated cuts to their states’ National Guard funding.
Speaking to reporters after a meeting between the president and the National Governors Association Monday, the GOP governors said they were deeply troubled by Obama’s tone when asked about planned cuts to the National Guard. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said Obama became ”aggressive” and that his tone “chilled the room quite a bit.”
“He basically said, ‘Many people in this room have asked for cuts, and now you getting ‘em,’” Haley said at a news conference across from the White House at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, adding that her husband, a guardsman, just returned from a year-long deployment to Afghanistan.
She said Obama was trying to “punish all these people who are asking for debt reduction by cutting the National Guard. It’s just not a logical way to do things.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declined to respond directly to the GOP characterization.
Killing the ‘Warthog’
Hagel said the Pentagon also planned to eliminate the Air Force’s fleet of A-10 “Warthog” close-air-support jets, which are much beloved by ground troops, in order to ensure continued funding of the new long-range bomber, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and a new aerial refueling tanker.
“This was a tough decision,” he said. “But the A-10 is a 40-year-old, single-purpose airplane originally designed to kill enemy tanks on a Cold War battlefield. It cannot survive or operate effectively where there are more advanced aircraft.”
The Pentagon chief also announced a series of steps to try to reduce the Defense Department’s military and civilian personnel costs, which now make up about half of its spending.
Hagel said the department would slow the growth of tax-free housing allowances, reduce the annual subsidy for military commissaries and reform the TRICARE health insurance program for military family members and retirees.
The defense secretary added that the Pentagon had decided to build only 32 versions of the new Littoral Combat Ship, rather than the 52 envisioned.
Reuters and Union Leader Staff Writer Ted Siefer contributed to this report.