Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s plan to reshape the military as the war in Afghanistan ends would slash the ranks of active-duty soldiers to the Army’s lowest level since before World War II. It also would eliminate an Air Force jet that protected troops in the Middle East and a famed spy plane that has been in service since the 1950s.
Hagel’s proposal is bound to have repercussions in Washington state, home to more than 70,000 military service members, but his spending priorities appear to favor programs that are based here, from special forces to cyber warfare.
Hagel outlined the plan Monday, a week before President Barack Obama’s expected release of a 2014 federal budget proposal. Hagel said he’s aiming to create a military that can maintain a technological edge while adapting to tightening federal budgets.
He envisions a lighter, rapidly deployable Army that can respond to small-scale conflicts around the world.
“We are repositioning to focus on the strategic challenges and opportunities that will define our future: new technologies, new centers of power and a world that is growing more volatile, more unpredictable and in some instances more threatening to the United States,” the defense secretary said.
The plan calls for a round of base closures in 2017 and could impact the Puget Sound region even if its Army, Air Force and Navy installations come out well.
That’s because of its reductions to spending on benefits for service members.
Hagel proposes to reduce housing allowances, cut subsidies for commissaries and make some adjustments to military health care plans.
Congress still must approve Hagel’s plan, and lawmakers have been loathe to reduce perquisites for troops just as they have resisted recent calls for base closure commissions.
Several from Washington’s delegation said they’re waiting for more details before they weigh in on Hagel’s plan.
“I’m concerned with some of the proposed measures but I’m looking forward to studying this proposed budget carefully to determine its impact on national security and the installations in our region,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor.
One of the headlines in Hagel’s announcement is a call for a 13 percent reduction in the number of active-duty soldiers, bringing the total force down to fewer than 450,000. At the peak of the Iraq War, the Army had 570,000 soldiers.
The Army now has 522,000 soldiers, and is in the midst of a previously announced plan to reduce its force to 490,000.
Joint Base Lewis-McChord, home to some 32,400 active-duty soldiers, is losing some 5,000 soldiers to that earlier drawdown.
Hagel also is calling for a 5 percent reduction in Army National Guard and Reserves personnel, which had been largely spared in past budget cuts.
Lewis-McChord is the West Coast’s largest military installation, so a plan to cut the total force significantly likely would have consequences in the South Sound because of the sheer number of soldiers based here.
However, former Army officers and local political leaders believe the base should remain fairly stable unless defense cuts go deeper than what Hagel outlined Monday.
“I think the bill for JBLM has already been paid,” said retired Col. Mike Courts, a DuPont city councilman and former chief of staff for Lewis-McChord’s highest Army command, the I Corps.
He pointed to several trends that favor the base south of Tacoma: It is at the forefront of the Army’s efforts to remobilize to the Pacific Rim, for instance, and it has access to three deepwater ports and a fleet of more than 50 Air Force C-17 jets at McChord Air Field.
“JBLM’s location makes it extremely valuable to the United States as we confront new security challenges in the Asia-Pacific region,” said Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia.
The defense programs Hagel said he intends to eliminate are the Air Force A-10 “warthog” and the U-2 spy plane. Neither aircraft operates out of McChord.
The A-10 provides close air support to ground troops and is popular with the Army. Air Force leaders contend they can provide the same support with different jets while saving $3.5 billion in A-10 maintenance costs over the next five years.
The U-2, a Cold War era spy plane that continued to do surveillance work in the recent wars, is to be replaced with Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles.
Hagel warned that the forced federal budget cuts known as sequestration could cause deeper reductions in the military force unless Congress repeals them. Over the next five years, he said, sequestration would slash $115 billion from planned military spending.
If sequestration stays, the Pentagon would reduce the size of the active-duty Army to 420,000, mothball an aircraft carrier in 2016 and retire more aircraft.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, echoed Hagel’s call to repeal the sequester cuts. He’s the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
“In a challenging and dangerous world, the Department of Defense is tasked with providing for national security, but Congress continues to fail to provide our military leaders with financial security and stability,” Smith said.
Hagel called for an increase in the number of Special Operations Forces and great investment in cyber warfare. Lewis-McChord is home to more than 3,500 special operators, and the Washington National Guard has robust intelligence and network warfare assets.
Courts questioned whether the Army end strength Hagel proposed would be too deep a cut considering increased military spending in China and Russia, as well as instability in the Middle East and Europe. At its lowest recent point, the Army had about 480,000 soldiers before the war in Afghanistan.
“I think we face a persistent threat. All you have to do is look at Syria and Iraq right now. Tell me al Qaida has gone away,” Courts said. “I got it, we’re facing budget challenges but the nature of the world is becoming more aggressive.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com