WASHINGTON — The Army will shrink to its lowest troop levels since before World War II under a budget proposed Monday by the Obama administration that seeks to downsize the Pentagon from the wartime buildup of the last 13 years, and calls for retiring hundreds of aging aircraft and warships.
The proposals reflect changing fortunes in the once-sacrosanct Pentagon budget. Congress has already ordered nearly $500 billion in defense spending cuts over the next decade, and automatic budget cuts — only partially rescinded — have caused a harsh re-evaluation of military needs as the nation closes out the punishing ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some of the proposed shifts are likely to face stiff resistance in Congress, where members of both parties staunchly protect military families, bases and defense contractors in their districts even as they force the Pentagon to cut costs.
But if Congress approves, the Army would drop from today’s active-duty force of 522,000 soldiers to between 440,000 and 450,000 over the next three years.
“Since we are no longer sizing the force for prolonged” ground wars, the Army is larger than required and “larger than we can afford,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who announced the plan, said at the Pentagon.
California may win more than it loses in the shift of resources as older aircraft are phased out and new ones are brought on board.
Spending for cyberwarfare will increase under the plan. That could benefit larger government contractors in Silicon Valley, including Cisco Systems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Oracle Corp. and a growing number of start-ups in defense-related equipment and software.
In addition, Northrop Grumman Corp. uses a facility in Palmdale, Calif., to build the unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk drone aircraft that will replace the high-flying U-2 spy planes, famous in the early Cold War but now proposed for retirement. The company has about 2,500 employees on the program in Southern California.
The Pentagon previously had planned to mothball a version of the Global Hawk and keep the U-2 flying. But Hagel said that the operating costs of the drone have fallen and that with its greater range and endurance, it “makes a better high-altitude reconnaissance platform for the future.”
Hagel also called for retiring the Air Force’s entire fleet of A-10 “Warthog” ground attack fighters, as well as mothballing half the Navy’s fleet of 22 cruisers, and building only 32 of the Navy’s Littoral Combat ships, not 52 as previously planned.
The shallow-draft, lightly armed warship is designed for clearing mines and anti-submarine warfare. Hagel said it may not be heavily armed enough and called for studying whether a new frigate might be better.
The only military force to grow would be special operations forces. Increasingly used for training and counterterrorism missions around the world, the elite force would increase by several thousand to 69,700.
The Army had 257,000 soldiers in uniform before World War II, a number that quickly swelled to more than 8 million. After a postwar drawdown, it spiked again to more than 1.5 million during the Korean and Vietnam wars. It was on a downward trajectory until the buildup that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Several Republican lawmakers quickly criticized the proposals Monday, arguing that cutting ground forces as well as warships and fighter planes could put U.S. security at risk.
“Reducing the size of the Army to its lowest levels in 70 years does not accurately reflect the current security environment,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. “Cutting key Air Force and naval capabilities just as we are trying to increase our presence in the Pacific does not make strategic sense.”
The cuts may also face opposition because they would require painful reductions to National Guard units around the country, which enjoy strong backing on Capitol Hill. The plan calls for trimming the Army National Guard by 20,000 to a total of 335,000, and the Army Reserve by 10,000 to a total of 195,000.
The proposed budget also would phase out the A-10 “Warthog.” Though the low-flying, heavily armored attack plane was developed in the early 1970s primarily to destroy Soviet tanks, its congressional supporters have beaten back previous attempts to kill it.
The 283 A-10s in the Air Force, many flown by Air National Guard units, are on bases in 10 states, including Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. Retiring the plane would save $3.5 billion, but Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., quickly rose to its defense Monday, expressing concern that the proposed cuts might “harm America’s military readiness.”
Also meeting resistance in Congress is a proposal to transfer all Apache attack helicopters, which are used exclusively in combat, from the Army National Guard to the active-duty Army. In return, the Army would transfer Black Hawk helicopters, workhorse aircraft that can be used for transport and other missions, to the Guard.
Defense officials argued that the cuts are necessary to preserve more important capabilities and to keep weapons programs that are vital as the United States places greater emphasis on deterring Chinese expansion in the western Pacific, and on preventing terrorist attacks from the Middle East and Africa.
Though both Democrats and Republicans have warned of the danger of deep cuts in defense, neither party has been able to spare the Pentagon budget from sharp declines as Congress grapples with pressure to reduce federal spending.
The Army was already scheduled to shrink to 490,000 by 2015, but with the Pentagon still facing years of reductions in planned future spending, the administration opted to cut manpower further to protect major weapons acquisition programs, notably the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive program in Pentagon history.
The radar-evading F-35, which was largely spared cuts in the Pentagon plan, is assembled in Fort Worth, Texas, but many of its parts come from Southern California. There are 298 companies that supply the program in the state.
The cuts that Hagel proposed fit within the budget agreement reached by President Barack Obama and Congress in December, which set defense spending for fiscal year 2015 at around $496 billion.
Defense officials argued that planned Pentagon spending had already fallen by $75 billion over the last two years, and they warned that further steep cutbacks could be required after 2015 if automatic annual reductions in spending, known as sequestration, are still in effect.
Without halting future spending cuts, “we would be gambling that our military will not be required to respond to multiple major contingencies at the same time,” Hagel said.
As a result, the administration is proposing to add $115 billion above sequestration levels over the next five years for training, upgrading aircraft and weapons systems, and repairing facilities.
But Gordon Adams, a defense budget expert at American University and a former official with the Office of Management and Budget, said the same budget pressures that have driven down the defense budget make it unlikely that Congress would approve $115 billion in additional military spending.
“It’s a parallel universe to imagine you are going to get those monies,” said Adams. “It’s not going to happen.”
Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., a member of the Armed Services Committee, criticized the Pentagon for failing to formulate a strategy that would work with further budget cuts.
“The Pentagon seems to be banking on Congress repealing sequestration. I think we all hope for this, but the Pentagon should be treated like the rest of the federal government and plan accordingly,” she said.