The Army is cutting thousands of soldiers from its force while fielding new vehicles to replace the Humvee and upgrading tanks and helicopters. The Air Force is shedding thousands more airmen as it buys new, stealthy F-35 fighter jets and plans for its next-generation long-range bomber. And the Marine Corps is shrinking by thousands of personnel as it prepares to buy not only more F-35s, but a next-generation heavy lift helicopter and an amphibious vehicle that will swim from Navy ships to shore carrying combat troops.
It's the new normal for the U.S. military, in which machinery trumps manpower when preparing budgets. With belt-tightening across Washington, the Pentagon wants to cut manpower and benefits for personnel along with select acquisition programs in order to retain as much as they can in new weapons, planes, and vehicles, senior defense officials said Tuesday. The comments came as they unveiled the Defense Department's new, controversial $495.6 billion base budget for fiscal 2015.
Under the plan, Pentagon spending will essentially remain flat in fiscal 2015 -- meaning that defense officials had to choose either cutting the force, or dumping new, expensive equipment that gives the United States a technological advantage on the battlefield. The Defense Department also will ask Congress for an undetermined amount of additional money in a separate "overseas contingency operations" account, but it will depend mightily on whether U.S. officials decide to leave a residual force in Afghanistan to train and advise Afghan forces as coalition forces end their combat role there.
The base budget request is about $420 million less than last year's, and comes as the United States grapples with how to handle Russia, which has emerged more clearly as a rival in the last week after its forces took control of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine, raising concerns with U.S. allies across Europe. But defense officials said Monday that its new strategy still provides the flexibility to address conflicts as they arise.
"It's continuing the transitions from the wars of the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, to looking at future threats and looking at what our joint force needs to... be able to do in the next 10 to 20 years," Pentagon comptroller Bob Hale told reporters.
But the strategy has its foes. Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, decried the effort on Tuesday, saying President Barack Obama's decision to cut the defense budget at a time when Russia and China are expanding their militaries is problematic, even if Congress called for mandatory budget cuts to drive down the national debt.
"In an effort to control debt, the only spending the president has truly agreed to cut has been those funds dedicated to national security: $1.2 trillion in defense cuts during his time in office," McKeon said. "While we cut nearly one-fifth of our defense resources, Russia and China are arming at an alarming rate -- Russia's military spending is up roughly 30 percent and China's has more than doubled in recent years."
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel released broad details about the 2015 defense budget last week, announcing that the Pentagon will cut the U-2 spy plane, A-10 attack jet, and slow the growth of its drone programs as it grappled with resetting the military after more than a decade at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The secretary will testify on the budget on Capitol Hill beginning Wednesday, taking tough questions about the military's future as critics say the U.S.'s choice not to push Russian forces out of Crimea underscores the stretched nature of the U.S. military amid budget cuts across the U.S. government.
The Pentagon's strategy shows a clear preference toward buying new weapons, aircraft, and vehicles rather than refurbishing old ones. The Air Force, for example, will protect three future aircraft programs above all: its planned long-range strike bomber, the KC-46A tanker plane, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. They will serve as the future centerpieces of the Air Force's fleet, eventually replacing existing aircraft like the B-52 bomber and the F-16 fighter jet. At the same time, the service will reduce forces in its active-duty, reserve, and guard forces from about 503,000 to 483,000.
The Army, meanwhile, will cut its forces from about 490,000 to between 440,000 and 450,000 over the next five years, while protecting several next-generation acquisition programs. Examples include the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, a Humvee replacement that will be fielded for the first time in coming months, and upgrades for the UH-60 Black Hawk and AH-64 Apache helicopters. The Army also has decided to kill its controversial Ground Combat Vehicle program and its Kiowa helicopter program, but anticipates developing a new vehicle program in the future.
Hagel said in a document released with the budget on Tuesday that the future U.S. military will be smaller, but ready and able to project power over great distances. Known as the Quadrennial Defense Review, it outlines future U.S. defense strategy, but was written before Russia's aggressive actions last week. It states that while the U.S. will continue to shift forces to the Pacific, Europe is still a priority.
"Europe is home to our most stalwart and capable allies and partners, and the strategic access and support these countries provide is essential to ensuring that the U.S. armed forces are more agile, expeditionary, and responsive to global challenges," it said.
U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Zach Anderson