Nation & World News

Pentagon Budget-Cutting Plans Sure To Draw Flak

By Mark Memmott on February 24th, 2014

Click here to jump to Monday afternoon’s highlights of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s announcement. We’ve rewritten the top of this post since Hagel announced his budget plan.

The U.S. military’s budget is heading for big changes, says Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. On Monday, Hagel unveiled his plan to shrink the size of the Army and Marines and cut both benefits and equipment. The changes are expected to provoke stiff resistance in Congress and from veterans groups.

Here’s how NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman summarizes Hagel’s plan on today’s All Things Considered:

“The biggest cutbacks will hit the Army. Hagel wants to cut more as many as 50,000 soldiers more than Army generals anticipated.

“After a dozen years of war, the defense secretary made clear that the days of large American forces endlessly patrolling a foreign land are over.”

As The New York Times reported this morning, “Under Mr. Hagel’s proposals, the Army would drop over the coming years to between 440,000 and 450,000. That would be the smallest United States Army since 1940.”

When Hagel’s budget will go to Congress next week, Tom says, the component that might get the sharpest reaction has to do with reducing the Pentagon’s spending on pay and benefits. The proposals range from putting pay raises at one percent to getting soldiers to pay more for health care, housing and food at commissaries.

As Tom said on Morning Edition, Pentagon officials warn that those costs “are eating us alive.” The average annual cost of pay and benefits for each active-duty member of the military, for instance, has risen from about $54,000 a decade ago to $110,000 now, he said. The costs of health insurance and other benefits for retirees are also soaring.

Hagel has previously told NPR that because the rising pay, benefit and retirement costs are accounting for an increasingly large share of the Pentagon’s budget, they threaten to leave the nation with “a military that’s heavily compensated, but probably a force that’s not capable and not ready.” If those costs aren’t trimmed, he said, training and hardware will have to be cut instead.

Update at 2:07 p.m. ET. With Difficulties Come Opportunities:

“There are difficult decisions ahead,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel tells reporters at the Pentagon as he finishes his prepared remarks. “That is the reality we’re living with. But with this reality comes opportunity. The opportunity to reshape our defense enterprise to be better prepared, positioned, and equipped to secure America’s interests in the years ahead.”

Update at 1:55 p.m. ET. Pay And Benefit Spending Has To Be Controlled, Hagel Says, But Pay Will Not Be Cut:

“No realistic effort to find further significant savings can avoid dealing with military compensation,” says Hagel. “That includes pay and benefits for active and retired troops, both direct and in-kind.”

He says that “for fiscal year 2015 we will recommend a 1 percent raise in basic pay for military personnel — with the exception of general and flag officers, whose pay will be frozen for one year. Basic pay raises beyond fiscal year 2015 will be restrained, though raises will continue.”

Tax-free housing allowances, Hagel says, will be trimmed so that they cover “an average of 95 percent of housing expenses” rather than 100 percent. The subsidy provided to military commissaries, he says, will be reduced by $1 billion from the annual spending that now totals $1.4 billion.

On health care, he says that “we will ask retirees and some active-duty family members to pay a little more in their deductibles and copays, but their benefits will remain affordable and generous … as they should be.”

And Hagel says that “our proposals do not include any recommended changes to military retirement benefits for those now serving in the armed forces.”

“Although these recommendations do not cut anyone’s pay,” Hagel concedes, “I realize they will be controversial.”

Update at 1:50 p.m. ET. Further Cut In Army Personnel:

“Today, there are about 520,000 active-duty soldiers, which the Army had planned to reduce to 490,000,” Hagel tells reporters at the Pentagon. But, he says, after reviews it has been determined “that since we are no longer sizing the force for prolonged stability operations, an Army of this size is larger than required to meet the demands of our defense strategy. Given reduced budgets, it is also larger than we can afford to modernize and keep ready. We have decided to further reduce active-duty Army end-strength to a range of [440,000] to 450,000 soldiers.”

Update at 1:45 p.m. ET. Sequestration Would Force Deeper Cuts, Hagel Says:

As he spells out the Pentagon’s plan, Hagel is repeatedly returning to one point — that the budget he’s proposing is less of a drag on the military than if the so-called sequestration budget cuts continue in coming years. He says, for example, that:

“If sequestration-level cuts are reimposed in 2016 and beyond … the Air Force would need to make far more significant cuts to force structure and modernization. The Air Force would have to retire 80 more aircraft, including the entire KC-10 tanker fleet and the Global Hawk Block 40 fleet, as well as slow down purchases of the Joint Strike Fighter — resulting in 24 fewer F-35s purchased through fiscal year 2019 — and sustain 10 fewer Predator and Reaper 24-hour combat air patrols. The Air Force would also have to take deep cuts to flying hours, which would prevent a return to adequate readiness levels.”

Update at 1:40 p.m ET. Special Operations Would Grow:

While Hagel is laying out a plan that would reduce the number of military personnel, the size of one type of force will increase, he says. “Our special operations forces will grow to 69,700 personnel from roughly 66,000 today,” under the plan, Hagel tells reporters at the Pentagon.

Update at 1:35 p.m. ET. Wants More Base Closures:

The Pentagon will “ask Congress for another round of Base Realignment and Closure in 2017,” Hagel tells reporters. “I am mindful that Congress has not agreed to our BRAC requests of the last two years. But if Congress continues to block these requests even as they slash the overall budget, we will have to consider every tool at our disposal to reduce infrastructure.”

Update at 1:30 p.m. ET. “Difficult Decisions”:

“We must now adapt, innovate and make difficult decisions to ensure that our military remains ready and capable — maintaining its technological edge over all potential adversaries,” Hagel says as he begins to outline his department’s budget proposal at a Pentagon news conference.

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