Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel renewed his warning to Congress on Monday that shrinking defense budgets mean a smaller military and cuts to popular programs — but that a return to sequestration would be even worse.Previewing the Pentagon’s fiscal 2015 budget being delivered to Congress next week, Hagel put the needle back on a broken record of debate over base closures, ship and aircraft disposals, weapons program cancellations and cuts to troop pay and benefits.
Hagel and the Defense Department are sticking by their position that the U.S. needs a smaller, high-tech military as opposed to a larger but less modern force. He urged Congress to go along. It may be unpleasant, he said, but more gridlock and more sequestration would hurt even more.
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“Our recommendations beyond fiscal year 2015 provide a realistic alternative to sequestration-level cuts, sustaining adequate readiness and modernization most relevant to strategic priorities over the long term,” he told reporters at the Pentagon. “But this can only be achieved by the strategic balance of reforms and reductions the president and I will present to the Congress. This will require Congress to partner with the Department of Defense in making politically difficult choices.”
The proposal amounts to a roll of the dice in a midterm election year, when defense advocates in both parties in both the House and Senate will be loath to close bases, idle factories or open themselves to accusations they cut pay or benefits for troops and their families. Moreover, Congress has already rejected many of the requests the Pentagon plans to make. Shipbuilding advocates balked, for example, the last time the Navy asked to decommission a batch of surface warships, and restored them to the fleet.
In the House, Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon faulted President Barack Obama on Monday for “trying to solve our financial problems on the back of the military.”
The Pentagon has already given up more than its fair share of the federal budget, McKeon said, adding Washington’s real spending problem is with mandatory programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, not the armed forces.
“Unless we address that, we’re just going to keep digging ourselves further and further in the hole,” McKeon said.
A senior defense official who briefed reporters before Hagel’s remarks acknowledged the political challenges involved with repeating some of this year’s proposals. Ultimately, however, all the Pentagon can do is ask, the official said.
“I hope that they will be partners with us and listen,” the official said, referring to Congress.
But Republicans especially may want to delay any serious defense reforms until after November’s election, which they believe offers them the chance to seize control of the full Congress.
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Just the same, Hagel again asked for a new round of base closures, starting in 2017. He also is requesting to dispose of the Air Force’s entire fleet of A-10 Warthog attack jets; mothball a batch of Navy cruisers and curtail its Littoral Combat Ship program; and reduce the subsidy for troop commissaries.
The Army would cancel its Ground Combat Vehicle. The Pentagon would transfer all the Army’s AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to the active component, away from the National Guard and Reserve, and cut the overall active Army to about 450,000 troops – from its Iraq War peak of 570,000. And the active Army would transfer some of its Black Hawk utility helicopters to the Guard and Reserve.
There are some silver linings for the defense establishment. The Pentagon appears to have left mostly intact major programs such as the F-35 Lightning II, the Air Force’s new bomber and KC-46A Pegasus tanker. It plans to spend about $1 billion on new jet engine research. Hagel said he wants the Navy to begin developing a new frigate to take the place of the Littoral Combat Ships cut from the latter portion of the program. The military services also would add about 3,000 special operations troops.
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The Pentagon must also begin to control the spiraling costs of its pay and benefits, Hagel said. Department officials want to work with Congress to cut pay increases, reform troops’ health care and dial back some of the perks that military families receive, including discounts at on-base stores and payments to help with their housing.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said he believes Congress should protect current military benefits so troops can keep what they expected to receive when they joined. But Washington can no longer put off reforming compensation, he warned.
“Otherwise we’ll be forced into disproportionate cuts to readiness and modernization,” Dempsey said. “I know this weighs heavily on the minds of men and women in uniform and their families, a force that’s extraordinarily capable of handling change, but less understanding of piecemeal approaches. They want and they deserve predictability.”
Nonetheless, veterans’ advocates were alarmed by many of the personnel proposals.
“Cuts to benefits make it more difficult for the military to attract and retain qualified personnel,” said Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff. “Maintaining the strongest all volunteer force requires a commitment to its people, and this proposed budget combined with Congress’s recent willingness to cut retiree benefits, puts the system at risk.”
If Congress doesn’t like it, Hagel said, it should try sequestration. If lawmakers permit the automatic spending restrictions to fall back into place as they would in 2016 under current law, the Air Force would also lose all of its KC-10 Extender tankers, its Block 40-model Global Hawk drones and slow purchases of its F-35A. The Navy would lose more ships – including an aircraft carrier — and delay its F-35C. And so on.
Hagel said he appreciates the difficulty involved with the reductions the Pentagon is proposing in its fiscal 2015 submission, but he said the U.S. could continue to be the leading world power and “defeat any aggressor.”
Not so if Congress permits sequestration to return, however.
“We owe it to the American people, and our Congress — those individuals who represent the American people — to talk about the risks involved with further cuts to our budget,” Hagel said. “We’ve tried to present a budget that was based on a balance of those realities, and we’ve done it in a collaborative, pragmatic way that we think we can defend.”
Juana Summers contributed to this report.