The Puget Sound’s senior lawmaker on military issues views Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s $496 billion proposed budget as a “zero sum game” that reflects hard choices in a time of postwar belt-tightening.
“Going forward, we’re going to have to live within the budget we have. It’s the law of the land,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
Hagel last week gave a preview to his 2015 spending plan that revealed proposals to shrink the Army, cut 5 percent of National Guard personnel, mothball the Air Force’s A-10 Warthog close-air-support jet, retire the U-2 surveillance aircraft and cap construction of Navy cruisers. The Pentagon today is releasing the budget proposal, and senior officers are expected to discuss it publicly with reporters.
The item most likely to sting in Washington state is Hagel’s proposal to reduce the size of the Army from a force of today’s 522,000 soldiers to less than 450,000. The Army previously was on a path to bring down the size of the force to 490,000 as the war in Afghanistan ends.
Joint Base Lewis-McChord is the Army’s fourth largest installation in terms of active-duty soldiers. It has 32,400 of them.
With those numbers, Smith said Lewis-McChord is bound to share in the Army downsizing.
He said he’s mainly concerned that the Army retains a well-trained force even as it shrinks. In the past, postwar drawdowns have resulted in a “hollow Army” that has many units but few prepared for combat missions.
Smith said he could “think of scenarios where a million man Army would not be enough,” yet he is not necessarily opposed to drawing down the force to Hagel’s new target.
“Would (the military) rather have 490? Of course,” Smith said. “Is it the end of the world, to be about 440 or 450? I don’t think so. It’s less than the military would tell you they’d like to have to properly manage our national strategy, but I don’t believe the sky is falling.”
Hagel's budget is roughly equal to the amount Congress appropriated for the military in 2014. It incorporates the forced federal budget cuts known as sequestration, which were designed in the Budget Control Act of 2011 to force lawmakers to come up with a deficit-reducing fiscal plan.
The Pentagon stood to lose $500 billion over 10 years under sequestration. It has received some relief from the forced cuts, but the law's spending caps remain below what the Defense Department requested for the past two years.
House and Senate lawmakers must approve Hagel’s proposal. Aside from shrinking the force, it also includes politically unpopular cuts to military housing allowances and subsidies for commissaries.
Last week, state governors began lobbying President Barack Obama to uphold the National Guard’s present strength of 350,000 citizen soldiers. The governors, including Washington’s Jay Inslee, pitched the Guard as an experienced, capable and cost-effective force. They asked for no cuts to the force.
Smith said preserving the Guard at full strength would require other cuts elsewhere.
“If anybody looks at this and says the Army should be bigger, the Guard should be bigger, than I would ask, ‘What would you cut instead?’ he said. “We would all like to have a Guard that doesn’t get cut. Where are we going to get the savings?”
Smith’s statements balancing the size of the force with plans to cut federal spending contrast with his counterpart on the House Armed Services Committee, Republican Buck McKeon of California.
McKeon wants a larger defense budget than Obama has proposed. He’d rather cut other federal programs than the military.
“We must resist the President’s compulsion to continually trade national security for financial responsibility, while getting neither,” McKeon said in a written statement about the defense budget today. “Peace through strength is more than a slogan. It is a foundation for securing our own freedom and prosperity.”