Pentagon to consider large-scale troop cuts

Freed money would fund upgrades, officials say

July 10, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - To free up money to modernize its war-fighting ability, the Pentagon is considering cutting tens of thousands of troops under a budget that will begin taking shape this fall, defense officials say.

The proposed reductions have been discussed with leaders of the four services, the officials said, noting that the Army and the Air Force would be hardest hit. The Army would lose one division, which could mean 20,000 to 25,000 soldiers. The Air Force could face a cut of 40,000 uniformed personnel.

The Navy could lose 20,000 sailors, officials said, and the Marines might be reduced by 2,000 to 5,000.

Such cuts, though, would face stiff political resistance. Military officers, civilian leaders and some in Congress have warned that the services need more personnel to meet the demands of peacekeeping missions and the global war on terrorism. Some fear that cutting troop levels would also put existing forces at greater risk.

Pentagon officials said the proposed cuts were the interim results of a study undertaken by David Chu, the undersecretary for personnel and readiness. The study is to be completed in September, when the Pentagon will begin drafting its budget for the 2004 fiscal year, which begins in October 2003.

"I think you will see a proposal" for the force cuts, said one official, who provided the information on the condition that his name not be used.

"The focus is clearly on the Army at this point," another official said, noting that the Army is the largest service and is viewed by Pentagon officials as moving too slowly to modernize.

Cuts opposed last year

In its budget planning last year, the Pentagon considered sizable cuts in forces, including two Army divisions. The idea set off outcries from Congress and Army leaders. They contended that the service needed even more troops for its 21st century missions.

Those suggested reductions were shelved after Sept. 11. Testifying to Congress in February on the Pentagon budget that begins Oct. 1, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said: "Now, in the midst of a war on terror whose final dimension is still unknown, we do not believe is the time to be cutting manpower."

But with personnel eating up a significant portion of the defense budget, and with Rumsfeld and his aides eager to harness the latest technology and weaponry, the Pentagon has begun to focus on cutting jobs among the 1.4 million people on active duty, as well as the 1.3 million in the National Guard and Reserves.

The Army has 481,000 personnel on active duty, followed by the Navy at 382,000, the Air Force at 360,000 and the Marines at 173,000.

Although the Army would lose one of its 10 active-duty divisions under Chu's interim findings, it's unclear whether cuts in the other services would come from support troops or combat units, officials said. But analysts said the size of proposed reductions for the Air Force and Navy would likely mean cutting combat forces.

"If you pick the right [uniformed personnel], I'd be OK," a defense official said. "If you pick the war-fighters, I've got a problem."

Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon spokeswoman, had no specific comment on the proposed figures. She noted that Chu is working on a wide-ranging study that, besides the size of the force, is reviewing recruitment and retention of personnel and the best way to use National Guard and Reserve forces.

"It's not just size," Clarke said.

The proposed defense budget for 2003 is $361 billion, an increase of $34 billion over the current year and the largest increase since President Ronald Reagan's Pentagon buildup of the 1980s.

Most goes to operations

In the 2003 budget, as in the Pentagon's spending plans of the past two decades, the largest percentage of money - 40 percent - is for operations and maintenance, to pay for things such as fighting the war in Afghanistan and fixing the Navy's aging F-14 Tomcats.

The next-biggest category is personnel, which for years has consumed about one-fourth of the defense budget. Personnel costs exceed the money spent either to buy weapons or to study and develop new ones.

"There's no question but that personnel is a major fraction of Defense Department costs," Rumsfeld said last week. "And the services are constantly faced with, would they rather have these pieces of equipment or these additional personnel?"

Besides considering cuts in personnel, Rumsfeld and his aides are looking at possible cuts in weapons programs, including the multi-service Joint Strike Fighter and the Air Force's F-22 fighter. In addition, officials said, they might eliminate the Army's proposed Comanche helicopter and the Marines' proposed V-22 Osprey.

Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, said the defense secretary and his aides "have a sense that everything they've inherited is old-fashioned."

Planning for future

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