Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s $496 billion Pentagon budget proposal signals the end of a long run of military growth in the South Sound.
For the first time in more than a decade, the proposed Defense Department budget does not include funds for new construction at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Since 2001, the Army has spent $2.2 billion building up the base.
The budget plan also could slash up to 440 positions in the Washington National Guard, headquartered at Lakewood’s Camp Murray.
And Hagel’s proposal to reduce the number of troops in the active-duty Army from today’s 522,000 to a force of less than 450,000 is bound to reverberate at Lewis-McChord.
His plan was released in detail Tuesday, eight days after he previewed it.
The Puget Sound’s senior lawmaker on military issues called the budget proposal a “zero sum game” that reflects hard choices in a time of postwar belt-tightening.
“If anybody looks at this and says the Army should be bigger, the Guard should be bigger, then I would ask, ‘What would you cut instead?’ said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, the ranking minority member on the House Armed Services Committee.
The total budget is roughly equal to what Congress appropriated for the military in 2014. On top of the $498 billion baseline budget, it includes $79 billion for the war in Afghanistan and $26 billion for a government innovation program.
Hagel aims to shift resources to new programs, such as cyber security and Special Operations Forces, while reducing commitments to aging aircraft and the large numbers of ground forces necessary in a drawn-out war.
It sets aside $3.6 billion for Boeing’s KC-46A Air Force refueling tanker and the P-8A Navy surveillance jet, both produced in the Puget Sound. The region’s Navy installations also would benefit from $173 million for upgrades to facilities in Bremerton, Whidbey Island and Port Angeles.
House and Senate lawmakers must approve Hagel’s proposal. It contains politically unpopular cuts to military housing allowances and subsidies for commissaries. It also slows pay raises for troops and it calls for a base closure commission in 2017.
Fifty governors last week wrote a letter to President Barack Obama seeking to spare the National Guard from any force reduction from its current strength of 350,000. Hagel would cut the number of citizen soldiers by 5 percent.
The defense secretary’s proposal “squanders the investment and value of the Guard and discredits its accomplishments at home and as an active combat force,” reads the letter from the National Governors Association. Washington’s Jay Inslee was among its signers.
Smith and other Democrats have described Hagel’s proposal as an attempt to balance security needs with fiscal restraint.
“Over the past 12 years, we’ve done significant pay increases, increased benefits, we did the GI Bill,” Smith said. “Going forward, we’re going to have to live within the budget we have. It’s the law of the land.”
Republicans are lining up to oppose it, taking aim at Obama.
“We must resist the president’s compulsion to continually trade national security for financial responsibility, while getting neither,” said Smith’s counterpart on the Armed Services committee, Republican Buck McKeon of California.
Hagel’s budget 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.
If they don’t act, the Pentagon would have to cut another $115 billion over the next five years.
Lawmakers expect Lewis-McChord to share in the cuts, but say the base has several advantages that could keep it steady. It has 32,400 soldiers today, about 14,000 more than it contained before the war in Iraq.
The Quadrennial Defense Review, a strategic document published every four years, continues to prioritize operations in the Pacific as the war in Afghanistan ends. That document also was released Tuesday.
Lewis-McChord has played a major role in turning the Army’s focus to the new operations.
“As our military shifts its focus to the Pacific (theater), Washington state’s military installations, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord in particular, will become more important than ever, requiring continued support and investments,” Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray said.
But if deeper Army cuts fall, specialized Army operations in the Pacific could be jeopardized. In that case, the Army would have to train to respond to general threats around the world instead of focusing forces on particular regions, defense experts said.
The Defense Review also commits U.S. forces to the Middle East and Europe. But neither it nor the budget proposal make mention of the Russia-Ukraine standoff. Both documents were complete before tensions escalated there in the past two weeks.
Patrick Cronin, senior adviser on the Asia-Pacific program at the Center for New American Security, said reducing the size of the Army could make it less of a deterrent to conflicts around the world. It’s a trade-off, he said, with the military accepting more risks in the short-term to “revamp, rejuvenate and retool” after long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The Army is paying a very heavy cost because it was on the front line of the last wars, and now it’s being asked to sit this one out,” Cronin said.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646