Military Cuts Meet Resistance from Lawmakers

Chuck Hagel warns Congress that further cuts will degrade America’s armed forces.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel answers questions from reporters at the Pentagon in Washington DC, February 24
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel answers questions from reporters at the Pentagon in Washington DC, February 24 (Defense Department/Sergeant Aaron Hostutler)

Lawmakers and interest groups criticized the spending cuts defense secretary Chuck Hagel announced on Monday as part of a budget to put the United States military off its war footing.

“This is a time for reality,” Hagel told a room stacked with reporters at the Pentagon. “This is a budget that recognizes the reality of the magnitude of our fiscal challenges, the dangerous world we live in and the American military’s unique and indispensable role in the security of this country and in today’s volatile world.”

Unfortunately for Hagel, the decision to unveil his department’s budget a week before it is officially presented to Congress has given groups and individuals opposed to it the time they need to collect their resources and fight the cuts in weapons programs and personnel that they see as harmful to America’s national security.

The 2015 budget outlined by Hagel is highly ambitious, seeking to gut programs that the Pentagon considers outdated or unnecessary in order to save funds for programs that will be crucial to combating new and emerging global threats, including cyberwarfare, international terrorism and Chinese expansionism in the South and East China seas.

The active duty army, for instance, is set to decrease by 80,000 soldiers, from the current 520,000 to a goal of 440,000 over the next several years. Following their active duty cousins, the Army National Guard and Army Reserve will be cut 5 percent from today’s levels, equivalent to 30,000 men and women — a dramatic change in force posture after thirteen years of land warfare in Central Asia and the Middle East.

The entire fleet of A-10 “Warthogs,” the same combat aircraft that proved so vital for ground troops in Afghanistan, will be decommissioned, saving approximately $3.5 billion in the process. The Marine Corps, which proved an instrumental component of the armed forces during the counterinsurgency mission in Iraq, will decrease by 8,000 troops to a total of 182,000. And in a move that will be virtually impossible to implement, the Defense Department has asked Congress to close down some of the military and air force bases that dot the United States — a political gamble for lawmakers who want to maintain as many jobs for their constituents as possible during an election year.

As soon as Hagel outlined his budget, there was a fierce backlash across Washington from veterans groups, key lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee and conservative think tanks influential on defense policy matters.

Retired Major General Gus Hargett, the president of the National Guard Association of the United States, blasted Hagel’s decision to cut the army’s national guard component. California’s congressman Buck McKeon, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, accused the Obama Administration of putting the nation’s fiscal problems “on the backs” of the military, an especially strong indictment from a man who is the head of the committee that will be responsible for sending Hagel’s budget to the House floor.

But if Congress is upset with the cuts, it has nobody to blame but itself. Thanks to the Budget Control Act signed in 2011, the Pentagon is only allowed to spend a certain amount of money each fiscal year, a cap that forces its leadership to cut programs in order to save or reinforce others that they deem more valuable. This austerity, Hagel warned, has the potential to hurt the American military even more if members of Congress are not able to repeal the Budget Control Act over the next year.

For Secretary Hagel, the 2015 budget strikes a balance in a tight financial environment, allowing the armed forces to save and reinvest funds into programs and weapons systems that will be more useful in future wars. But for lawmakers, it is yet another reminder that the cuts they signed into law are limiting the military’s options.