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In a speech today, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will recommend cutting an additional 40,000 to 50,000 active-duty members from the Army, which had already been scheduled for troop cuts after more than a decade of war.
The cuts would make the U.S. Army its smallest since World War II. Hagel will also propose cutting an entire class of Air Force attack jets.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is at the Pentagon today, outlining his priorities for next year's defense budget. Chief among them, Hagel is recommending shrinking the Army to its smallest size since before World War II. He'll call for a significant drop in troop levels, cutting a fleet of attack aircraft and a salary freeze for officers, among other proposals.
The plan is already drawing passionate criticism from veterans organizations, arms manufacturers and several members of Congress who staunchly defend military bases in their districts. But Hagel's plan also indicates the Obama administration's commitment to push the Army to a different kind of readiness when it comes to fighting multiple, simultaneous, large conflicts.
So what are the implications of all this? Let's turn to Mark Thompson. He writes for - about national security and the military for Time magazine. He joins us from Washington. Mark, welcome.
MARK THOMPSON: Good morning, Meghna.
CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, take us into a little bit more detail about what shrinking the Army to its smallest size since before World War II actually means. What about troop levels?
THOMPSON: Well, in the wake of 9/11, the Army peaked at about 570,000 troops. But even before that during the Cold War, we had an Army that was bigger than that because number one we had to fight the Soviet Union. Number two, the blueprint always was the ability to wage, fight and win two wars at once. That sort of has faded in recent years. As you may recall, we couldn't do it in Afghanistan and Iraq at the same time. We sort of had to put Afghanistan on the back burner when we plunged into Iraq.
So this time around I think what we're going to see the military and Secretary Hagel do is acknowledge, listen, we've just fought two giant land wars in Asia. But we're not doing that currently. We're going to pull our combat forces out of Afghanistan by the end of calendar 14 in which we are right now. So it is safe to bring our military down to, oh, roughly 440, 450,000. That's still a big force. It can still do a lot. I think they're just giving up the charade that the U.S. military was ever able to fight and win two wars at once.
CHAKRABARTI: Right. And so I'm seeing that troop levels were already scheduled to drop to 490,000. And, as you mentioned, Hagel is going to propose taking that even further down to 440 or 450,000. But take us more into the - what you just said that, really, at the heart of this proposal is an acknowledgement that the military, the Army needs to be ready to no longer necessarily fight two simultaneous, active conflicts at the same time, but that their strategy for dealing with global events might have to change a little. What should be their footing now under this new proposal?
THOMPSON: Well, plainly, I think what we're going to see - I mean, let's face it. War is politics by other means. And the president and the Congress, despite those who just want to keep spending more and more money on plants and bases in their district, realize the country has no appetite for another big land war. So number one, that means the Army is going to shrink. Number two, what it also tell us is as the military pivots to Asia, which President Obama announced a couple of years ago, that's going to put a greater reliance on our Navy and on our Air Force.
So although they are not going to be spared the budget ax, they are going to be whittling away a little more with some more ingenuity at those two services than they are at the Army. I mean, the Navy is likely to give up seven - or 11 of its cruisers in a temporary way until they get more money to repair those ships and make them, shall we say, ship shape. In the same way, they're putting on hold the notion of giving a new nuclear engine to one of the 11 aircraft carriers they have because they know, five or 10 years down the road, the money may not be there to keep 11 carriers sailing.
But at the same time, the number of special forces, special operations forces are growing by about 4,000 troops under Hagel's plan. So the thing, you know, a lot of what Hagel wants to do Congress has kept him from doing. And looking at what he's trying to do within the freedom he has, it seems like he's making - taking a pretty good shot at moving and making the military perhaps more adaptable to today's world than had been the case when we were waging those two wars in Asia.
CHAKRABARTI: Right. So does he have support from the generals or even higher from the joint chiefs?
THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, plainly, the joint chiefs support this. He would not be putting it forward if they did not. So yes, he's got that. You know, plainly, there will be some pain. There will be slower increase and pay hikes for soldiers as well as their officers and the top officers. The general and the admirals are slated to have a pay freeze of one if not two years. So that will cause some squawking, but I think that it's a fair burden to ask the highest folks to bear if you're asking the younger grunts to handle it. And in the same way, they'll be trimming some of the bennies, some of the benefits the troops get in terms of their commissary privileges, in terms of their health, in terms of housing allowances. All of this has become very costly, every expensive.
THOMPSON: The secretary of Defense, the last three of them, have said those sort of costs are eating us alive and we must get them under control. And I think what we're seeing here, interestingly, is it's very tough to take an individual soldier and take something away from him or her. It's a lot easier basically to cashier that soldier, to say the Army needs to shrink, and then you don't get those arguments about, well, how much should be in his or her paycheck.
CHAKRABARTI: So obviously that's one of the reasons why the secretary is probably going to get a lot of pushback from veterans' associations, from, you know, congressmen and women that we were talking about earlier who defend military installations in their districts. But what about military strategists as well? Because, you know, I'm seeing, for example, it's being reported that some officials are concerned that a smaller military, and The New York Times had said, you know, could invite, quote, adventurism by U.S. adversaries.
THOMPSON: Yeah. But that's always true. And obviously, once again, the reason we hire generals and admirals and defense secretaries is to assess risk and to say, OK, how much risk are we willing to accept at what price? And it does an American no good to go to Capitol Hill and hear lawmakers say, well, if you cut that, you're going to put our men and women at risk. If you don't want to put our men and women at risk, you know, don't go to war. Don't send them in harm's way.
But once you decide to send them into harm's way, there's always going to be an element of risk. And depending on the rest of the world, yeah, I mean things are not - never static. And the fact is that a smaller military is generally a less powerful military. But if what you're shrinking are your ground forces, that still leaves the American military with immense firepower both from the air and from the sea.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Mark Thompson is Washington deputy bureau chief for Time magazine. He writes about national security and the military for Time. Mark, thank you so much.
THOMPSON: Thank you, Meghna.
CHAKRABARTI: Let us know what you think about Chuck Hagel's plan to shrink the Army to its smallest size since World War II. We're anxious to hear from you. We're at hereandnow.org. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.