WASHINGTON — The Army said Thursday that six domestic bases will lose 1,200 or more soldiers as part of a cost-saving plan to reduce the active-duty force by 40,000 troops over the coming two years. If Congress and the White House cannot avert another round of budget cuts this year, even deeper troop reductions would result, Army officials said.
The decision to shrink the Army from 490,000 active-duty soldiers to 450,000 was made months ago, but details on how it would be accomplished were briefed to Congress only in recent days. The proposal is drawing fire from many lawmakers, especially those whose states or districts are hit hardest, as critics point to fears of a military crisis with Russia and the prospect of being at war with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria over an extended period.
A portion of the Army's 40,000-troop reduction would be achieved through attrition and adjustments to recruiting, but an undetermined number of soldiers — officers as well as enlisted — would be forced out of uniform, the Army said.
The Army's civilian workforce would be cut by as many as 17,000 over the same period.
Army officials said the plan calls for cuts at nearly every installation in 2016 and 2017, with Fort Benning, Georgia, and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, taking the largest reductions. Benning is to lose 3,402 soldiers, or 29 percent of its current personnel, as the Army converts the 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division to a smaller unit known as a battalion task force. Elmendorf-Richardson is to lose 2,631 soldiers, or 59 percent of its personnel, as the 4th Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division undergoes the same conversion, according to figures released by the Army.
Fort Hood, Texas, the Army's largest base, would lose 3,350 soldiers, or 9 percent of its personnel. Among others, Fort Bliss, Texas, would lose 1,219 soldiers, or 5 percent; Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, would lose 1,251, or 5 percent, and Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, would lose 1,214, or 8 percent.
The Army estimates that the overall cut of 40,000 soldiers will result in savings of $7 billion over four years.
Congressional delegations have been waiting for word on how the cuts would be distributed and timed; troop reductions can inflict significant economic pain on communities reliant on military base populations.
If a new round of automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, goes ahead in the budget years beginning Oct. 1, the Army says it will have to reduce even further, to 420,000 soldiers by 2019. As recently as 2012, the Army had an active-duty force of 570,000.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, has said he can accept the planned reduction of 40,000 soldiers over the next two years. In his view, being forced to shrink the Army is not the hardest part of coping with years-long budget wrangling between the Congress and the White House. Even more difficult, he says, is the uncertainty for military planners and the nation's soldiers.
"The thing I worry about is it has put a lot of turbulence in the Army and brought a lot of angst to our soldiers," he told reporters May 28. As he nears the end of his tenure as Army chief, Odierno said the only thing that could push the service off its course toward modernization is more budget uncertainty.
"The unpredictability is killing us," he said.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter agrees.
"We've been going one year at a time budgetarily now for several years straight, and it's extremely disruptive to the operations of the department," Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. "It is managerially inefficient, because we're in this herky-jerky process."
It may not get any smoother anytime soon. Congressional Republicans are proposing to give President Barack Obama the extra billions he wants for defense in the budget year starting Oct. 1. But Obama says he can't accept their plan because it maneuvers around spending caps in a way that does not also provide spending relief in non-defense areas of the budget. This portends a September showdown between Congress and the White House.
The Army says it needs to start moving ahead with planned troop reductions, although most will be accomplished through attrition and forced retirement of officers rather than layoffs or other forms of forced departures.
Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the cuts make no sense.
"Any conceivable strategic rationale for this cut to Army end-strength has been overturned by the events of the last few years from the rise of ISIL, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Ebola crisis, and more," McCain said Wednesday.
At a hearing Thursday, McCain said the problem is broader than the Army.
"The Air Force is the oldest and the smallest it has ever been," he said. "The Navy's fleet is shrinking to pre-World War I levels. With the present operational tempo and drastic reductions to defense spending, we will continue the downward spiral of military capacity."
Members of Congress generally oppose shrinking the size of the military, especially if the cuts might affect bases in their states or districts. But they also have opposed other forms of savings proposed by the Pentagon, including reforming the military health care or retirement systems, eliminating older weapons systems or closing bases.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, told Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at Tuesday's hearing that he was opposed to shrinking the size of the 4th Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division, an airborne infantry unit based at Fort Richardson, Alaska, because he wanted to save the Army from a "strategic blunder."
Dempsey told Sullivan that Congress has been "telling us 'no'" to money-saving changes that could reduce the need for troop cuts.
"We have $1 trillion — that's a T, not a B — a trillion dollars less in budget authority over 10 years. We've said from the beginning, it's a disaster," Dempsey said.
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