WASHINGTON — Looking beyond America's post-9/11 wars, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday proposed shrinking the Army to its smallest size in 74 years, closing bases, trimming military benefits and reshaping forces to confront a “more volatile, more unpredictable” world.
Now he has to sell the idea to a skeptical Congress.
The nation can afford a smaller military so long as it retains a technological edge and the agility to respond on short notice to crises anywhere on the globe, Hagel said. He said the priorities he outlined reflect a consensus view among America's military leaders, but Republicans in Congress were quick to criticize some proposed changes.
At the core of the defense spending plan that will be part of the 2015 budget submitted to Congress next week is the notion that after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that proved longer and more costly than foreseen, the U.S. military will no longer be sized to conduct large and protracted ground wars. It will put more emphasis on versatile, agile forces that can project power over great distances, including in Asia.
Budget constraints demand that spending be managed differently from the past, Hagel said, with an eye to cutting costs across a wide front, including in areas certain to draw opposition in the Congress.
He proposed, for example, a variety of changes in military compensation, including smaller pay raises, a slowdown in the growth of tax-free housing allowances and a requirement that retirees and some families of active-duty service members pay a little more in health insurance deductibles and co-pays.
“Although these recommendations do not cut anyone's pay, I realize they will be controversial,” Hagel said, adding that the nation cannot afford the escalating cost of military pay and benefit packages that were enacted during the war years.
Although Congress has agreed on an overall number for the military budget in fiscal 2015 — just under $500 billion — there are still major decisions to be made on how that money should be spent to best protect the nation.
Early reaction from Republicans in Congress was negative.
“I am concerned that we are on a path to repeat the mistakes we've made during past attempts to cash in on expected peace dividends that never materialized,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a possible presidential contender in 2016.
Another proposal likely to draw fire on Capitol Hill is Hagel's call for a new round of domestic military base closings in 2017. In the years after the most recent round, in 2005, members of Congress fought to protect bases in their home districts and states, arguing that the process does not yield as much savings as advertised.
“This is another dumb idea,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Even some Democrats who have burnished reputations as fiscal hawks responded coolly to some aspects of the spending plan for the Pentagon.
“I will be taking a hard look at its new budget proposal to make sure it still provides for the strongest national defense,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee.
Hagel built his case on what he called a foundation of realism. He quoted one of his predecessors, the World War II-era secretary of war, Henry Stimson, as saying Americans must “act in the world as it is, and not in the world as we wish it were.”
“This is a time for reality,” Hagel said.
He and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, both argued strongly against a return to the across-the-board congressional budget cuts known as sequestration that were partially suspended for the 2014 and 2015 budgets. Hagel likened a return to such cuts to “gambling with our military.”
This report includes material from McClatchy Newspapers.