The Defense Department may have to force soldiers, Marines or other members of the military out of the services for the first time since the aftermath of the Cold War to achieve the spending reductions in its budget proposal.
The Pentagon plans to cut 67,100 soldiers from active and reserve Army units and the Army National Guard in the five years starting Oct. 1, as well as 15,200 from the active and reserve ranks of the Marine Corps as part of an effort to save $487 billion over a decade, according to the budget sent to Congress today. The Navy and Air Force would lose fewer people -- 8,600 and 1,700 respectively -- because of their role in a strategic shift toward the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East.
The military will first try buying out contracts or offering bonuses for people to leave, while working to keep those with valuable specialties such as cyber warfare and acquisitions, according to Travis Sharp, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington policy group, who attended a Pentagon briefing for analysts last month.
“I was surprised that they were going to complete the reductions to the Army and the Marine Corps in just five years,” Sharp said in an interview before the budget was released. “What they told us is that they will try to use those types of positive incentives to the greatest extent possible, but that involuntary separations would probably still be necessary.”
The Pentagon has said it is aiming to a create a smaller, more agile military. Special operations forces, whose commandos killed Osama bin Laden last year, would be expanded.
Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, cited a comment by White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “the time for austerity is not today.”
“They’ll have a tough time explaining that to the 100,000 troops who will be forced from service under the president’s new budget plan,” McKeon of California said today in a statement.
The cuts, spurred in part by plans to wind down the war in Afghanistan in the next three years, would mark the first time the U.S. military has forced personnel out of the services since the larger troop reduction after the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
The military services, which decide how to achieve the cuts, may be able to tighten re-enlistment standards and offer incentives to leave, Defense Department Comptroller Robert Hale said.
“I don’t think we can stand here and say there won’t be any involuntary separation,” Hale told reporters at the Pentagon today. “We have very high retention right now with the economy still fairly weak. If that changes, it will be easier. If it doesn’t, it will be harder.”
The department will seek to “do this in as humane a way as we can,” Hale said.
The prospect of cutting the U.S. military to about 2.15 million people by October 2017, a reduction of 92,600 starting next year, creates political risks for Obama in an election year, and economic risks as military personnel enter the civilian workforce in coming years, Sharp said. Including reductions in the current year, the plan would eliminate 123,900 positions from all the branches.
‘Kicking People Out’
“You are kicking people out of the military at a time when unemployment is not only a major challenge, it is also a primary factor in the upcoming presidential election,” Sharp said. “They will have to start the machinery and the process of implementing these drawdowns this year.”
The reductions would start with 31,300 uniformed positions, or 1.4 percent, eliminated in the 12 months starting Oct. 1, cutting the force size to 2,238,400 from 2,269,700 this year, according to the proposal.
After the Cold War, the military pared its active-duty ranks by 494,000 from 1991 to 1995, according to the Defense Department comptroller’s office. That included 216,000 from the Army and 21,000 from the Marine Corps. Further cuts followed in the next few years, ending just before the Sept. 11 terror attacks by al-Qaeda.
The Army forced more than 5,300 out of its officer ranks alone in the five years ended Sept. 30, 1997, according to a report published in October 2000 by a researcher at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. The study found forced exits also contributed to attrition in the ranks of younger officers.
“With junior officers witnessing such an array of policies designed to entice or force over 23,000 of their peers and role models to leave, it is not surprising that their loyalty to the military has been redefined with a healthy dose of skepticism,” the researcher, Leonard Wong, wrote in the report.
The Army’s budget director, Major General Phillip McGhee, told reporters at the Pentagon today that his service will rely first on on-time and early retirements, reducing recruitment and other steps before resorting to involuntary measures.
“We really want to put minimum stress on the force as we do the rampdown,” McGhee said.
In addition to focusing more national security attention on Asia and the Middle East, the Pentagon’s revised strategy outlined last month sets aside previous assumptions that the military plan for large and protracted conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
The cuts in uniformed personnel are in keeping with proposed steps such as eliminating eight Army brigades, five Marine infantry battalions and four of the Corps’s tactical air squadrons. The Air Force would lose 303 aircraft and six fighter squadrons, while the Navy jettisons seven cruisers and 2 dock landing ships.
“In preparing this budget, we endeavored to avoid the mistakes of previous drawdowns that attempted to maintain more force structure than the budget could afford,” the department wrote in a Jan. 26 summary of its five-year priorities.
Cuts by Service
Today’s budget proposal fleshes out the cuts for each of the military branches.
Army forces would be reduced by less than 1 percent to 1,115,300 in 2013 and then drop to 1,048,200 in 2017. That’s still far greater troop strength than in February 2002, a year before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when the Army numbered about 480,000 on active duty.
The Navy would have 1.7 percent fewer personnel, or 385,200 in 2013, and faces a reduction of 3.9 percent to a total of 376,600 people in 2017.
The Marines would be down to 236,900 in 2013, or 2 percent fewer than this year. By the end of 2017, the Marines face a reduction of 8.3 percent from this year to 221,700.
The Air Force will have 501,000 personnel in 2013, or 1.9 percent fewer than this year. In 2017, Air Force personnel will decline to 499,300.