An army of one: Chuck Hagel proposes sharp cuts to U.S. Army

Mortar round prep / U.S. Army
Mortar round prep / U.S. Army

WASHINGTON, February 24, 2014 — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced plans for a major restructuring of America’s armed forces today. In a speech at the Pentagon, he announced that the United States needs a more agile, mobile military to meet the challenges of a more volatile world. He then called for cuts that would leave the U.S. Army with its lowest active duty troop strength in 74 years.

“We are repositioning to focus on the strategic challenges and opportunities that will define our future: new technologies, new centers of power and a world that is growing more volatile, more unpredictable and in some instances more threatening to the United States,” said Hagel. He proposed cutting troop strength from its current 522,000 to under 450,000. That would leave the Army at its smallest since before the United States entered World War II.

The proposed troop cuts reflect realities of military spending cuts and the end of America’s role in Afghanistan. President Obama will submit his budget to Congress next week, and cuts were expected. The depth of the cuts, though, was not. Earlier estimates were for a reduction to 490,000 troops. American withdrawal from the Middle East and Central Asia does not leave the Army idle, and as Hagel himself observed, the world is not notably more stable or safe than it was last year.

Hagel is reported to have conferred closely with the chiefs of the different service branches in arriving at these cuts, which also include cuts to the Army National Guard and the elimination of the Air Force’s fleet of A-10 attack aircraft. Funding for Special Operations forces, cyberwarfare, and the current fleet of 11 aircraft carriers is protected under Hagel’s plan.

Under the proposed cuts, the United States military would still be overwhelmingly powerful, according to military officials, but it would lose the capacity to fight a protracted war. In the event of a major war, the Army will rely on its superior capabilities to stop an enemy until reserve forces can be mobilized.

The United States has maintained a smaller army than most of its potential rivals, including Russia (766,000 active frontline personnel, 2.48 million active reserves), China (2.285 million frontline personnel, 2.3 million active reserves), Iran (545,000 frontline personnel, 1.8 million active reserves), and North Korea (690,000 frontline personnel, 4.5 million active reserves). The U.S. Army has depended on superior training, the use of volunteers rather than less reliable conscripts, and superior technology to retain its military dominance.

Critics charge that the American approach puts far too many eggs in the technological basket. While the U.S. can afford to maintain a smaller standing army, men in boots have roles that cannot be filled by technology. The U.S. no longer dominates the world of military high technology as it did 20 and 30 years ago, and our dependence on technology creates vulnerabilities to cyberwarfare and the appearance of disruptive new technologies.

Superior military technology also comes with high costs that have ballooned and reduced procurements. USAF original intended to purchase 750 F-22 fighters at a cost of $26 billion; procurement was stopped at under 200 aircraft at a cost of $66.7 billion. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was supposed to be a lower cost aircraft, but its flyaway cost has ballooned to $150 to $200 million per aircraft, and planned procurements have been reduced.

Similar cost overruns have hit projects in every military service. This has led to periodic calls to reduce reliance on major new weapons systems and move away from a military doctrine that calls for fighting more than one major land war at a time.

The reduction in troop strengths will probably not be widely opposed. Other cuts will be, however. Slowdowns in Navy shipbuilding, cuts in National Guard units and the elimination of the A-10 fleet are expected to draw strong congressional resistance. Projected base closings will also be resisted.

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  • Tim Kern

    “The military” has an entitlements millstone around its neck. There’s a “warfighting” military… and there’s everything else — VA, pensions, benefits, etc. — that use a military budget but do nothing military. Sadly, the warfighting military is the one that gets cuts, because the “entitlements” military and its supporting bureaucracy never get considered for cuts.
    The solution is not to eliminate the “entitlement” military, but to put that budget into some other “welfare” bin, and understand that the military’s job is fighting, not providing benefits. Warfighting pay needs to be raised to reflect what the job’s worth when they do it, so that enlistees don’t expect entitlements forever, to cover for the years when they were doing something military and getting screwed on pay.
    Leave the warfighters alone; support them! In the end, they’re the only ones who can do us any good, assuming we need a “military” at all.

  • On the one hand I value the open discussion of issues such as our military budget; on the other, I wonder what our enemies around the world think when they observe such discussion.

  • Clyde Picht

    In the geopolitical world it is written that a strong foreign policy must be backed by a strong military. Our foreign policy is hard to figure out when we keep backing away from crisis. As we demilitarize (compared to our adversaries) we will have even less influence in a very volatile world.

  • Tom Winegar

    As expected, now that Obama is turning tail to run out of Iraq and Afghanistan the Democrats only see opportunity to emasculate the military so they can use the money to create new entitlements for those that shouldn’t count anyway.