Hagel: Shrink U.S. military to face new era

The defense secretary says we must adapt to post-9/11 wars, meaning taking Army size to its smallest in 74 years.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESSFebruary 25, 2014 

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Master Sgt. Mike Davidson, crew chief with the 124th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, throws a cover over an A-10 Thunderbolt engine at Gowen Field after a training flight on Thursday. Though old and slow, the planes remain popular for many military tasks.

KYLE GREEN — kgreen@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

The defense budget proposal would include closing bases and reshaping forces to confront a "more volatile, more unpredictable" world with a more nimble military.

The nation can afford a smaller military so long as it retains a technological edge and the agility to respond on short notice to crises anywhere on the globe, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said. He said the priorities he outlined reflect a consensus view among America's military leaders, but Republicans in Congress were quick to criticize some proposed changes.

The cuts would almost certainly impact Idaho, whose Air National Guard has 21 of the A-10 "Warthogs" that would be eliminated under Hagel's proposal.

In a speech at the one-year mark of his tenure as Pentagon chief, Hagel revealed many details of the defense spending plan that will be part of the 2015 budget that President Barack Obama will submit to Congress next week. Hagel described it as the first Pentagon budget to fully reflect the nation's transition from 13 years of war.

At the core of his plan is the notion that after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that proved longer and more costly than foreseen, the U.S. military will no longer be sized to conduct large and protracted ground wars. It will put more emphasis on versatile, agile forces that can project power over great distances, including in Asia.

Hagel stressed that such changes entail risk. He said, "We are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies and in space can no longer be taken for granted."

However, budget constraints demand that spending be managed differently from the past, with an eye to cutting costs across a wide front, including in areas certain to draw opposition in the Congress, he said.

Hagel will take some first steps to deal with the controversial issue of pay and compensation, as the proposed budget would impose a one-year salary freeze for general and flag officers; basic pay for military personnel would rise by 1 percent. After the 2015 fiscal year, raises in pay will be similarly restrained.

The fiscal 2015 budget also calls for slowing the growth of tax-free housing allowances for military personnel and would reduce the $1.4 billion direct subsidy provided to military commissaries, which would most likely make goods more expensive.

The budget also proposes an increase in health insurance deductibles and some copays for some military retirees and for some family members of active servicemen. But Hagel's proposals do not include any changes to retirement benefits for those currently serving.

Another proposal likely to draw fire on Capitol Hill is Hagel's call for a new round of domestic military base closings in 2017.

Among other changes Hagel proposed:

• The Air Force will continue developing a new bomber and a refueling tanker aircraft as well as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The service will seek $1 billion to design a new jet-engine technology that will produce "sizable cost-savings," Hagel said.

To pay for the programs and the new engine, the Air Force will shrink the size of its tactical air squadrons and completely eliminate its A-10 "Warthog" attack airplane fleet, to save $3.5 billion over five years, Hagel said. The move would let the Air Force concentrate its resources on the F-35 made by Lockheed Martin.

The A-10 program supports about 6,000 jobs in the Air National Guard in five states. The plane's elimination without replacement would cost the 1,400-member Idaho Air Guard $32 million a year in federal funds, the Statesman reported in November. That includes payroll expenses as well as money for operations and maintenance budgets.

Sen. Mike Crapo was one of 33 lawmakers from both parties who wrote to Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey last year expressing "deep concern" about removing the A-10 from the Air Force fleet. The letter was also signed by Sen. Jim Risch and Rep. Mike Simpson.

"It would be difficult for the Department of Defense to justify the divestment of the A-10 while the Air Force continues to expend millions of dollars on conferences, air shows and bloated headquarters staffs - while also struggling to meet statutory audit deadlines," the letter stated.

The Air Force also will retire its fleet of 50-year-old U-2 spy planes in favor of Global Hawk surveillance drones made by Northrop Grumman, Hagel said.

• The active-duty Army would shrink from today's 522,000 soldiers to between 440,000 and 450,000 - the smallest number since 1940 when the nation was gearing up to enter World War II. The Army currently is scheduled to be reduced to 490,000.

• The Army National Guard would drop from 355,000 soldiers to 335,000 by 2017, and the Army Reserve would drop by 10,000, to 195,000.

• The Marine Corps would shrink from 190,000 to 182,000.

• The Navy would keep its 11 aircraft carriers but "lay up," or temporarily remove from active service, 11 of its 22 cruisers while they are modernized. The Navy would reduce from 52 to 32 its purchase of littoral combat ships, which are smaller vessels designed to operate closer to shore.

Bloomberg News and New York Times News Service contributed.

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