Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s announcement Monday that he wants to trim the U.S. Army back to its pre-9/11 levels will be welcomed by leftists who view anything related to the military suspiciously.
And few could argue military spending, which consumes about 20 percent of the federal government’s bloated budget, could not be pared.
But Hagel’s sweeping austerity plan looks like it will hurt active duty personnel and veterans and could compromise national security.
Congress needs to be cautious about what proposed cuts are enacted.
Locally, it appears Hagel’s plan will be no threat to MacDill Air Force Base, which has an economic impact of $5 billion to the region’s economy.
Hagel’s plan emphasizes special operations forces, and both the U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command are housed at MacDill.
But that doesn’t mean the plan would not affect MacDill.
As the Tribune’s Howard Altman reports, the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill already has warned airmen that close to 1,000 positions could be eliminated. And cutbacks in benefits could hit military personnel and veterans hard.
Hagel plans to reduce payroll, benefit and retirement costs that, he warned, threaten to leave the nation with “a military that’s heavily compensated, but probably a force that’s not capable and not ready.”
And while acknowledging the proposed changes will be controversial, Hagel suggested that if those costs aren’t reduced, then training and hardware will have to be cut instead.
But the cutbacks he has in mind may make it difficult to recruit individuals to train or operate the hardware.
“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,” he said. “Basic pay raises beyond fiscal year 2015 will be restrained, though raises will continue.”
Given the nation’s fiscal situation, perhaps such restraints can be justified, though we don’t feel our military is in any way being overcompensated.
But Hagel also said tax-free housing allowances will be reduced to cover an average of 95 percent of housing expenses rather than the present 100 percent, and the subsidies to military commissaries will be reduced by $1 billion (their present cost is $1.4 billion).
At a time when food stamp use at military commissaries is at an all-time high, it is impossible to believe such cutbacks won’t prove a hardship for military families, as will Hagel’s plan to “ask retirees and some active-duty family members to pay a little more in their deductibles and co-pays, but their benefits will remain affordable and generous, ... as they should be.”
Even more concerning than the impact on military families is the effect of the cuts on national security.
The United States has approximately 520,000 soldiers on active duty.
Pentagon officials conceded that the proposed cuts could put the armed forces at greater risk if they are required to carry out two large-scale military actions at the same time. Success in such situations, they acknowledged, could take longer, and there could be more casualties.
But, one senior official suggested, the nation can’t afford to carry a large land-war Defense Department when there is no large land war. There is another way to look at that. Can we afford not to be prepared to protect American interests in a world with so many enemies and so much turmoil?
Defense officials acknowledged that a smaller American military might encourage risk-taking by adversaries.
“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,” Hagel explained.
“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 440,000-450,000 soldiers.”
The nation must come to grips with the deficit, and the Pentagon deserves the same kind of scrutiny as any other federal agency.
But unlike so many Washington expenditures, national defense is an essential federal responsibility. Hagel clearly has a thankless job, and cuts are unavoidable.
But Congress must not approve measures that could offer our foes a weakness to exploit. We fear a smaller, less agile military would do just that.