The military faces one of two options in order to meet mandatory across-the-board budget cuts, says Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel: chopping the number of personnel or limiting its technological edge. That might mean reducing as much as 29 percent of soldiers, 18 percent of Marines and three Navy carriers through 2019.
The budget cuts, known as sequestration, have forced the Pentagon to craft a number of contingency plans, all of which Hagel says will affect readiness. At a news conference Wednesday, Hagel said there was a tradeoff between cutting either the number of personnel or modernization capabilities, and he stressed that Defense officials aren’t yet sure which way it will go.
They must consider “what’s preferable, what are the threats, what are the resources on capability versus capacity,” Hagel said. “As I said, no decisions have been made.”
The Pentagon made its assessment in an internal strategic review that was designed to address the proposed sequestration cuts, and it released the results to members of Congress. Sequestration is set to cut $500 billion from the Defense budget over a decade, and with the additional reductions implemented in 2011 nearly $1 trillion would be cut from the Defense budget over the next 10 years.
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Currently, there are about 535,000 Army personnel, 182,000 Marines and 11 Navy carriers. The review suggests cutting that to as few as 380,000 Army personnel, 150,000 Marines and eight Navy carriers.
The other option, which Hagel described as a “decade-long modernization holiday,” would involve curtailing research and development funding, reducing special operations forces and slowing technological growth.
“I believe what we’re going to find is that we will edge slightly, probably, towards capability, because we have to keep our industrial base alive and we have to keep focusing on new technologies that will take care of us in the future,” Navy Adm. James Winnefeld said. “But we have to keep an eye on the capacity that might be required to fight a war today.”
The expected $52 billion cut in fiscal year 2014 trims 10 percent of the Defense Department’s budget. Larry Korb, an expert on national security and the federal budget at the Center for American Progress, a Progressive research center, said those cuts weren’t as severe as the Pentagon had made them out to be.
“A lot of this is hyperbole. ‘Oh, no, we’re cutting back. We don’t want to do what we did after Vietnam.’ But most of that stuff is nonsense,” Korb said. “The sequester is bad because you don’t have a choice. But cutting back personnel to where you were in 9/11 is not a real problem.”
Korb said the review’s conclusions also indicated the military’s preference for using drones and airstrikes over land personnel.
“The one thing in the budget that’s going up is special forces and drones; half the planes in the Air Force now are unmanned,” he said. “So we’re moving into a new age.”