Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - Automatic budgets cuts will force the Pentagon to slash its ranks or trash its plans to buy new weapons, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Wednesday.
The budget cuts known as sequestration forced the Pentagon to trim $46 billion from its budget this year and, if left in place, would require $500 billion in reductions over the next decade. Hagel laid out the Pentagon's view of austerity following a planning exercise called the Strategic Choices and Management Review.
The choice, Hagel said, is between troops and modern weapons. To preserve the U.S. edge in weapons, the Army would shrink to as few as 380,000 soldiers and the Marine Corps to 150,000 troops. There would also be fewer Navy aircraft carriers and Air Force bombers. Current plans envision an Army of 490,000 soldiers in coming years, and a Marine Corps of 182,000.
The Army hasn't been that small since before World War II when it had 267,767 soldiers.
"This strategic choice would result in a force that would be technologically dominant, but would be much smaller and able to go fewer places and do fewer things, especially if crises occurred at the same time in different regions of the world," Hagel said.
It's notable that Hagel said such cuts would not break the military's overall strategy of deterrence, homeland security and shifting forces to the Asia-Pacific region, said Todd Harrison, a budget expert at the non-partisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. It would be able to do less, but it would preserve the nation's edge in military technology.
The other choice, keeping more troops and fewer cutting-edge weapons, would result in losing America's technological advantage in warfare, he said.
"Cuts on this scale would, in effect, be a decade-long modernization holiday," Hagel said. "The military could find its equipment and weapons systems - many of which are already near the end of their service lives - less effective against more technologically advanced adversaries."
The choice between troops and gear would be unnecessary if Hagel went after the Pentagon's bloated bureaucracy, said Gordon Adams, a professor at American University and former defense official in the Clinton administration. There are 540,000 soldiers in the Army now, and 195,000 Marines.
The Defense Department has about 800,000 civilian employees and nearly as many contractors, Adams said. That's more than its active-duty force of 1.4 million troops.
The Pentagon employs "too many people in too many offices," and they often do the same or similar jobs, Adams said. "We need to do less with less."
Hagel also called for $50 billion in reductions in military compensation -- a politically sensitive topic almost guaranteed to generate criticism among veterans' groups and some on Capitol Hill. One option might be to require troops and working-age military retirees to pay more for health care. Compensation accounts for about half of the Pentagon's budget.
"If left unchecked, pay and benefits will continue to eat into readiness and modernization," Hagel said. "That could result in a far less capable force that is well compensated but poorly trained and poorly equipped."
Hagel's approach, delegating Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and senior enlisted troops to come up with $50 billion in compensation cuts, could give it political cover, Harrison said.
"He's set a target and he has the right people involved," Harrison said.
Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, blamed Republicans for the military's bleak choices. Sequestration occurred after the White House and Congress could not agree to a deal to solve the nation's long-term debt.
Hagel's review "drives home the point that Republican budget policies of fiscal austerity and intentionally starving the federal government of revenue put our national security at risk," Smith said.