TOM BOWMAN, SUN REPORTER
WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials are considering cutting as many as 34,000 soldiers — the bulk of them from the National Guard — at a time when U.S. ground forces are stretched in Iraq, according to defense officials.
The proposed cuts are part of a reduction in the growth of defense spending over the next five years ordered by the White House. The manpower cuts stem from a decision by top Army leaders to sacrifice troop strength in order to provide money for new weapons systems and other equipment, said defense officials, who requested anonymity.
The plan, not yet approved by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, is likely to spur criticism from members of Congress, who have pressed for a larger Army, and to prompt even greater opposition from the nation’s governors, who command the part-time Guard soldiers unless they are called to federal duty. State officials rely heavily on the 334,000-soldier Army Guard for natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.
The plan calls for a reduction of about 26,000 Army Guard soldiers. It would eliminate as many as six brigades — each about 3,500 soldiers — and two division headquarters, officials said. One aviation brigade would likely be targeted, along with five ground brigades, including as many as four armored and mechanized units, officials said.
No specific states have been singled out for cuts, but those types of ground units are in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Washington, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Minnesota and Idaho.
The rest of the proposed cuts would come from the 189,000-soldier Army Reserve, which would lose 4,000 soldiers, and the 492,000-soldier active-duty Army, which would be cut by one brigade, officials said.
Asked about the plan, Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman, said: «The U.S. Army is looking at a great number of options. Nothing has been decided at this time.»
Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said Army officials have not told him of any decisions on troop reductions.
«Nobody’s talked to me about having significant cuts in the National Guard,» Blum said. Still, he said, eliminating six Guard brigades would amount to a «significant loss» of capability for the Guard, both for its domestic responsibilities and in its support for overseas missions, such as Iraq, where the Guard has provided nearly 50 percent of U.S. combat units.
«It would reduce the number of citizen-soldiers available to the governors and to the president at a time when no one has a sure picture of what we face in the future,» Blum said in an interview. «It would be unwise and risky in today’s uncertain threat environment.»
One Pentagon official, who requested anonymity, said the decision to reduce troop levels was spurred by the need to cut $32 billion in Pentagon spending between 2007 and 2011.
The Army’s share of that cut over five years is $11.6 billion, or 36 percent, said the official, though the Army’s share of the total Pentagon budget is about 24 percent.
«The Defense Department does not have enough money to pay for all the bills it has to pay,» the official said. «The Army leadership knows it’s a tough call.»
The official said much of the Army’s budget — 40 cents of each dollar — goes for personnel costs, compared with 16 cents of each dollar for hardware, from radios and night-vision goggles to Humvees and tanks.
In the 1990s, the Army reduced the amount of money it devoted to such hardware and now finds itself with equipment shortages, which have been exacerbated by war losses and damage from its missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the same time, the Army hopes to field the Future Combat System in the next decade, a complex network of armored vehicles, unmanned drones, sensors and weapons systems. Last month, the Pentagon said the system will cost $161 billion, a 64 percent increase from last year’s estimate.
«The Army decided to put an emphasis on quality, with the best equipment we can provide for,» which, the official said, would result in a reduced risk to the individual soldier.
At the same time, the Army has embarked on a plan to increase the combat power of both the active-duty Army and the Army National Guard by creating «modular» brigades that include more modern equipment.
The Army had hoped to create 43 to 48 of these brigades, an increase over the current 33 brigades. But with the planned budget cuts the Army will settle on 42 brigades, the official said. Thirty-four of the «modular» brigades were planned for the Guard, up from the current 15 Brigade Combat Teams or «enhanced» brigades. Now, under the cost-saving plan, the Guard would be held to 28 modular brigades.
Some defense officials noted that Rumsfeld appeared last week to be telegraphing, using some of the specific target numbers, that those cuts were on the way.
The Pentagon official said the force cuts would be sent to Congress in February as part of a once-every-four years defense blueprint known as the Quadrennial Defense Review. The QDR outlines weapons systems, spending and emerging threats.
«I think there’s going to be a lot of discussion of this in [congressional hearings] in February and March,» said the official. «Congress has to decide to add money to recover some lost [troop] capacity.»
The $32 billion in budget cuts over five years came amid pressure from a White House faced not only with purchasing new weapons systems but also with paying the $6 billion monthly costs in Iraq, more for rebuilding Gulf Coast areas damaged by Hurricane Katrina and financing the new Medicare prescription benefit.
Asked why proposed troop cuts were focused on the Guard, the Pentagon official said that the Guard is already about 17,000 soldiers below its congressionally authorized strength of 350,000 because of «significant recruiting problems.» As a result, he said, the reductions in Guard troops wouldn’t be that difficult to achieve.
But National Guard officials said recently that recruiting had started to pick up, boosted by additional numbers of recruiters, sign-up bonuses and a new advertising message that emphasizes public service.
Guard officials have been quick to point out that they met their recruiting goals over the past two months with higher-caliber recruits than the Army.
In November, the Guard accepted less than 5 percent of its recruits from those who scored in the lowest category on the military’s aptitude test.
The Army, meanwhile, accepted «double-digit» percentages of these recruits in November and 12 percent in October, after coming in 7,000 recruits short in the 2005 recruiting year, which ended in September.
With U.S. forces busy in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has a plan to temporarily increase its total active-duty force in coming years by 30,000, to 512,000. Some in Congress have called for a larger — and permanent — manpower increase for both the Army and Marine Corps, arguing that repeated overseas deployments are sapping the strength of the all-volunteer force.
«Our military and our families are stretched thin. Many say the Army’s broken. Some of our troops are on their third deployment,» said Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat who last month called for U.S. forces to leave Iraq in the next six months.
There are about 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, a number that Pentagon officials and military officers say will drop to less than 100,000 by next fall.
Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer who is a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, has argued that the Army should consider increasing its size due to its heavy reliance on soldiers for current overseas missions.
Krepinevich said the proposed force cut of 34,000 soldiers raises questions about a new military crisis that might require sending additional U.S. troops, such as the collapse of the government in Pakistan or the rise of an increasingly aggressive Iran.
«If you’re faced with an Iran or a Pakistan, how do you plan to deal with that?» he asked.
Focusing troop reductions largely on the National Guard, he said, raises new questions about the future of the Guard: «What role do you have in mind for the Guard in homeland security, stability operations and combat operations? It’s not clear to me.»
December 21, 2005
TOM BOWMAN, SUN REPORTER