Army, Air Force chiefs defend cuts in end strength
WASHINGTON — The Army and Air Force chiefs of staff offered more detail Friday on the shrinkage they expect in their respective forces, arguing the cuts won’t hamper the ability of soldiers and airmen to protect the country.
The Army will drop to 490,000 troops by 2017, compared with more than 560,000 now. The planned reduction follows a quick inflation that provided ground troops for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Now that one war is over and the end of another is in sight, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said in a Pentagon press conference, “We’re making a correction based on what we see out there in terms of potential threats.”
The Air Force too will shrink, though the cuts will fall differently, Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz said at a later press conference.
“Confronted by a more complex and dynamic security environment, as well as significant reduction in defense resources, the Air Force determined the best path forward was to become smaller,” he said.
Schwartz said he expected the Air Force to cut about 10,000 troops as it shifts and consolidates operations, he said. But the service faces large cuts in airlift capability, with more than 125 cargo planes scheduled to be cut. Meanwhile, the service determined that six of 60 fighter squadrons were unneeded, he said, but did not identify which squadrons were on the chopping block.
As Pentagon officials have been saying for months, Odierno and Schwartz both stressed that their services’ budget cuts will be carried out within the context of the national defense strategy introduced earlier this month at the Pentagon by President Barack Obama.
Though the Army plans to slim down in coming years to a size similar to the pre-9/11 years, it will be a far more capable force than the one that existed then, Odierno said.
The experience and lessons learned in the past 10 years of accounts for part of the difference.
“We are an Army that is seasoned by combat,” he said.
Special operations forces will be increased to 35,000 — nearly 7 percent of the entire Army — while regular forces will be trained increasingly to cooperate with special forces on missions.
Smaller numbers will be offset somewhat by the Army National Guard and Reserve, which make up a “real reserve” honed by operations in recent wars, he said.
Schwartz said the defense plan released Thursday protected the Air Force’s key capabilities, including global strike, nuclear defense, control of air and space, surveillance and heavy lift.
“We will be smaller but superb force that maintains our agility, our flexibility, and readiness to engage a full range of contingencies and threats,” he said.
The new round of base closings that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recommended Thursday would likely hit the Army and Air Force differently, the service chiefs agreed.
In the last decade, the Army has seen numerous bases shuttered under the Base Realignment and Closure process, Odierno said. While minor shifts could take place in future rounds, the effects would be limited, he said.
“I think for the most part we have established our installations,” he said.
Air Force base closures could be far more wide-ranging, Schwartz said. The 2005 BRAC round found 20 percent excess capacity in air bases, but resulted in no closures, he said. Inventory since then has fallen, and excess capacity risen.