Panetta: Troop numbers to fall, but no hit to active-duty pay and benefits
WASHINGTON — Overall troop numbers will fall, ships and planes will be retired and some programs will be curtailed, but building the “smaller and leaner” U.S. military of the future won’t immediately hit the pocketbooks of active-duty troops or wounded veterans.
“I want to make it clear that cuts in spending will not fall on the shoulders of our troops,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said at the Pentagon on Thursday.
He and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta previewed the upcoming 2013 Defense Department budget request, which President Barack Obama will deliver to Congress on February 13.
Panetta acknowledged the changes are being driven by the fiscal challenges facing the country, but insisted that they will not compromise military capabilities or national security.
“The military will be smaller and leaner, but it will be agile, flexible, and technologically advanced,” Panetta said. “It will be a cutting edge force. … We will ensure we can quickly confront and defeat aggression from any adversary, anytime, anywhere from any place.”
Even with the dramatic cuts in ground forces, Panetta noted that the number of soldiers and Marines will remain higher than it was before the Sept. 11 attacks, and insisted that America will remain “capable of defeating any adversary on land.”
Taken as a whole, the overview presented Thursday describes a military shrinking in size and pinching pennies in some areas — heavy air transport capabilities, for example — that have been important to the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pentagon leadership and the Obama administration seem determined to avoid new wars of nation-building as the congressionally-mandated cuts of nearly $500 billion from defense budget play out over the next decade.
But spending will increse in other areas key to building what Panetta called an “agile, flexible, ready” force built for limited, Libya-style conflicts and countering the rise of Chinese power in the Pacific. Those include counterterrorism, special operations forces and surveillance.
Spending in cyber offense and defense will increase significantly.
Among the Pentagon’s key budget recommendations:
With the necessary budget cuts, Panetta said Thursday, something had to give in end strength.
“To ensure an agile and ready force, we made a conscious choice not to maintain more force structure than we could afford to properly train and equip,” he said.
Army end strength would “gradually” fall from roughly 570,000 to 490,000 soldiers while the Marine Corps would shrink from just more than 200,000 to 182,000 troops. In the process, the Army would cut at least eight of 45 brigade combat teams.
Meanwhile, in the event of a large conflict, the ability to quickly re-inflate the force will be built into the reductions by maintaining a strong core of midgrade officers and noncommissioned officers.
A new round of base closings could accompany the falling force levels, Panetta said.
“The president will request that Congress authorize use the Base Realignment and Closure process with a goal of identifying additional savings and implementing them as soon as possible,” he said.
Pay and benefits
The growth of health care and benefits, now about one-third of the defense budget, can’t be sustained, officials said Thursday.
Nevertheless, active-duty troops will receive scheduled pay increases in 2013 and 2014. The following year, the DOD will implement “more-limited pay raises” to constrain long-term costs.
“This will give troops and their families fair notice and lead time before these proposed changes take effect,” Panetta.
Active-duty troops and wounded veterans also will not face increases in health care costs, but military retirees under age 65 would face increases in Tricare fees and co-pays.
The actual increases for veterans weren’t specified, but observers have said forcing working-age retires to pay more could save billions.
Programs and hardware
Cuts won’t just impact people, however. Several big-ticket acquisition programs were targeted, and a number of aging ships and planes would be cut from the inventory.
As expected, the Pentagon announced it would slow the procurement of the costly, controversial F-35 fighter. Though exact budget numbers won’t be available until the formal budget request, background sources have told several news outlets that purchases of 179 planes will be put off.
“The Defense Department remains committed to the JSAF program of record,” Panetta said. “But in this budget, we have slowed procurement” while more testing and development takes place.
Likewise, the Navy would see the purchase of a Virginia-class submarine and two Littoral Combat Ships delayed, among others, while 7 cruisers would be mothballed.
The Air Force would lose six of 60 tactical squadrons and more than 125 transport planes from its inventory.
Nevertheless, Dempsey said, the cuts leave in place a capable, modern military that can accomplish whatever is needed to protect the United States and its interests.
“This budget does not lead to a military in decline,” he said. Rather, he said, “It is a military that can win any conflict, anywhere.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Leo Shane III contributed to this story.