March 3, 2014

Editorial: Army troop cuts too heavy in a troubled world

The following editorial appeared Sunday in The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer

The following editorial appeared Sunday in The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer

Early reaction from Congress makes it likely that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s budget-cutting plan is dead on arrival. That’s good. Hagel wants deeper cuts than are prudent or safe.

We’re not speaking from the perspective of an Army town that will lose heavily if the defense secretary gets his way. The roadmap for the Army charts a course emphasizing special operations and rapid response: Fort Bragg’s bread and butter. The plan also proposes a BRAC round in 2017. Closing smaller posts could bring more troops here as well.

Hagel proposes accelerating deep troop cuts in the Army. The current plan cuts about 30,000 troops. In the revised budget he unveiled last week, Hagel proposed cutting twice that – maybe more, if sequestration returns, a possibility in 2016. In addition, the National Guard would lose about 20,000 soldiers, and the Reserves would drop about 10,000.

Hagel says the military no longer needs to conduct long and large-scale operations like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We hope he’s right, but we’re not so sure and doubt it’s prudent to shrink American military forces to their lowest level since before World War II.

When Hagel says the military still “must be ready and capable to respond quickly to all contingencies and decisively defeat any opponent should deterrence fail,” he’s not fully accounting for the world’s political landscape. We may be done with Iraq and leaving Afghanistan by the end of this year, but there are so many other trouble spots in the world. That includes the volatile Middle East, growing insurgencies in Africa, the hawkish government of Iran and, still unfolding, Russia’s attempts to fold Ukraine into a new alliance that could be the reincarnation of the Soviet Union.

We may need more troops than Hagel wants to keep, but we don’t need many of the weapons systems he wants to phase out. The Army, Air Force and Navy have long complained about tanks, aircraft and ships forced on them by politicians. Jettisoning that expensive hardware makes sense – except in the congressional districts where it’s made. That makes those cuts unlikely.

The bottom line, though, is a real bottom line. Congress has ordered budget cuts – $45 billion less in 2015 – and the military needs to find them. BRAC and weapons systems are better places to trim, with lighter personnel cuts.

But in the end, Congress will decide, and politics will trump strategic plans, sadly.

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