The hidden message in the Pentagon’s budget outlook

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday outlined the Pentagon’s 2015 budget proposal, which includes a significant reduction in the size of the Army, cuts to major weapons systems and a focus on reducing out-of-control pay and benefits costs.

But hidden in the deluge of data points about funding levels, cost increases and the future of major defense contracts was the tacit recognition that unless Congress prevents additional sequestration cuts from taking place in 2016, the nation’s fundamental military capability statement of the last 25 years — being able to fight and win in two major regional contingencies — may no longer be possible.

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Hagel outlined the department’s efforts to “adapt and reshape” to a new global security environment and unprecedented funding constraints. He characterized the plan as “the first budget to fully reflect the transition DOD is making after 13 years of war” and said the focus was on laying the foundation for a smaller, more capable force.

The biggest change outlined by Hagel calls for reducing the Army’s end-strength from its current level of 520,000 to between 440,000 and 450,000 soldiers. The Air Force will be required to retire its entire force of A-10 attack aircraft, as well as the Cold War-era U2 spy plane. Pay raises for flag and general officers remain frozen, while the rest of the military will be limited to a 1 percent cost-of-living increase.

But Hagel’s characterization of how the Pentagon developed its budget priorities and the potential impact of additional sequestration cuts show a very real concern about the military’s ability to meet its two regional contingency strategy — a strategy first articulated in 1991.

“The forces we prioritized can project power over great distances and carry out a variety of missions more relevant to the president’s defense strategy, such as homeland defense, strategic deterrence, building partnership capacity and defeating asymmetric threats,” Hagel said. “We chose further reductions in troop strength and force structure in every military service, active and reserve in order to sustain our readiness and technological superiority and to protect critical capabilities like special operations forces and cyber-resources.”

But the Pentagon is clearly betting on Congress not allowing sequestration to take another bite out of military capability in 2016. The Pentagon has already absorbed a $37 billion mandatory cut on top of a 10-year, $487 billion reduction as called for by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

“Sequestration requires cuts so deep, so abrupt, so quickly that we cannot shrink the size of our military fast enough,” Hagel said. Additional sequestration cuts in 2016 and beyond “would almost certainly result in a hollow force,” he said. Over the long term, the resulting force would be too small to execute the president’s defense strategy, he warned.

Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, acknowledged the impact that budget pressures are having on the nation’s adherence to a coherent military strategy during a speech Monday at the National Press Club. The nation’s long-standing strategy to be able to fight two major regional contingencies has been radically altered, he said.

“We have cut that back to fight one and hold one,” McKeon said.

Daniel Goure, vice president at the Lexington Institute, said the military is currently too small to respond to two major regional contingencies.

“Today, the two-MRC standard, the sine qua non of superpower status and possibly the most critical measure of a viable U.S. national security strategy, is at risk,” Goure wrote in a Jan. 25 essay published by the Heritage Foundation. “The new defense strategy attempts to have it both ways. It professes to adhere to the two-major-theater-war standard while proposing for the second contingency something a great deal less.”

And that seems to be evident in the language used by Hagel, who acknowledged the Pentagon’s latest budget plan introduces a certain level of risk to the nation’s security strategy.

“Our analysis showed that this force would be capable of decisively defeating aggression in one major combat theater, as it must be, while also defending the homeland and supporting air and naval forces engaged in another theater,” Hagel said.

But another round of sequestration cuts in 2016 could make even that definition of the national military strategy difficult to meet. According to Hagel, continued sequestration cuts would force the Army to go down to 420,000 soldiers, reduce the number of combat air patrols by the Air Force, and force the Navy to operate with only 10 aircraft carriers (the two-MRC standard has for the past 20 years been based on 11 aircraft carriers).

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey added that about one-third of the Army’s end strength is dedicated to support services. If additional cuts are forced upon the service in 2016, they would significantly limit that number of forces available to dedicate to combat operations. “So, I’m telling you, 420,000 is too low,” he said.

“We must be clear about what the joint force can achieve, how quickly and for how long and at what risk,” Dempsey continued. “If sequestration-level cuts return in 2016 the risks grow and the options we can provide the nation dramatically shrink. Now, we’re all willing to take risks, but none of us are willing to take a gamble.”

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Chuck Hagel, Department of Defense (DOD), Departments, Martin Dempsey, military strategy, Pentagon budget, Sequestration
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