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Will Army Troop Cuts Be Congress’s Wake-Up Call On Sequestration?

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

Army photo

M1 tanks at Fort Benning, GA, one of the bases to be hit by the cuts.

WASHINGTON: Army officers and officials hit Capitol Hill this afternoon to brief congressional staff on the coming round of personnel cuts. We’ve known for over a year that the Army would cut 40,000 active-duty soldiers — going down from 490,000 troops to 450,000 — but now the service is finally saying which units get cut. Further, unlike previous reductions that focused on Europe, these 40,000 solders will come out of bases in the United States. So, for many members of Congress and the public alike, what’s been an abstract debate is about to get painfully real.

Will news of specific cuts to local bases change the politics? At stake isn’t this current round of cuts, which it’s almost certainly too late to stop. The bigger issue is whether there’ll be more cutbacks when and if the Budget Control Act goes into full force next year. Sequestration — shorthand for the BCA–  would drive the Army down by another 30,000 active-duty troops, to 420,000 soldiers. Sequester would probably force politically explosive cuts to the National Guard and Army Reserve as well, which have so far been largely (not entirely) spared.

“Numbers like 450,000 or 420,000 have no real meaning to the public,” said retired Lt. Gen. Guy Swan, vice-president for education at the influential Association of the US Army. “But significant reductions at local bases will get some attention, certainly by the members of Congress who have constituencies there.”

Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. photo

Lt. Gen. (retired) Guy Swan, AUSA

“I suspect it will be ugly,” one Army source told us. “In some communities, it will seriously degrade tender economies still trying to recover from the Great Recession.”

A Hill staffer who’d seen the Army brief, however, was skeptical the cuts would be much of a wake-up call. “They spread the cuts as much as possible, so the reaction may be limited,” the staffer told me. “Some bases were barely touched at all.”

So who’s been hit? USA Today reported cuts to what sound like combat brigades at two locations, Fort Benning in Georgia and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska. But legislators who have such big bases back home tend to already be aware of the Army’s budget plight and are opposed to sequestration. Their minds don’t need changing. Conversely, legislators whose minds the Army might need to change will probably be among those whose bases — if any — are “barely touched at all.”

Unsurprisingly, the chairmen of the two armed services committees were quick to denounce the cuts. “People who believe the world is safer, that we can do with less defense spending and 40,000 fewer soldiers, will take this as good news,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry in an unusually acid statement. “I am not one of those people.”

“Any conceivable strategic rationale for this cut to Army end-strength has been overturned by the events of the last few years from the rise of ISIL, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Ebola crisis, and more,” declared Sen. John McCain. “Stopping this decline will require the Congress to find a bipartisan solution that ends sequestration once and for all.”

But how? The House and Senate Armed Services Committees have proposed bypassing the Budget Control Act by designating much of the defense budget as exempted emergency spending (Overseas Contingency Operations funds, or OCO). The Administration sees this as an irresponsible fiscal gimmick and has threatened a veto.

What’s more, even if the White House and Capitol Hill can come to terms, they’ll only be preventing a fall below 450,000. The current cut to 450,000 is going to happen. A presidential veto or a sequester would simply mean the Army gets cut more.

“Congress and the administration want a smaller Army, with reduced capacity to respond to contingencies overseas and at home,” the Army source said grimly. “This is great news for Russia, North Korea, China, and ISIS, but concerning for our allies and friends in NATO, the Middle East, and the Pacific. History tells us that ‘chickens come home to roost.’ We should prepare for a lot of disruptive, painful roosting in our future.”

What do you think?