Soldiers from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division climb aboard an airplane at the Fort Campbell Airfield on Sept. 13 as they prepare to depart for a deployment to Afghanistan. Some BCTs would be cut under proposals to cope with budget reductions. (Sgt. Alan Graziano / Army)
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The elimination of up to 18 additional brigade combat teams — or 66,000 soldiers — could be necessary to meet budget caps, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
This latest call for a smaller Army is part of the March report “Approaches for Scaling Back the Defense Department’s Budget Plans,” published by the CBO. The report said the Pentagon will be well over its budget by 2021 and offered four options to cut costs. The most aggressive would cut 18 heavy, Stryker and infantry BCTs, as well as 58 major warships, three Marine regiments and 25 Air Force fighter squadrons.
The Army already is cutting its active force from 570,000 to 490,000, which could lead to involuntary separations for 24,000 enlisted personnel and 7,000 officers. Service leaders contend sequestration could eliminate another 100,000 soldiers — roughly 80,000 reservists and 20,000 active-duty troops.
Army leadership sticks to the party line and won’t address the likelihood of deeper cuts or whether they are planning for the possibility. But it has become increasingly apparent that those cuts will not provide necessary savings.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, during February testimony before the House and Senate armed services committees, said the sequestration effect number would be “closer to 200,000.”
Retired Adm. Gary Roughead, former chief of naval operations, in a February report published by the Brookings Institution, called for the elimination of 200,000 active-duty soldiers. This would bring end strength to 290,000 troops. The plan also would increase the Guard and Reserve by 100,000 soldiers, who would be “entwined in the regular rotation … arriving in a mature theater for sustained combat.”
The four options
Budget caps mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 stand at the heart of the CBO report. The law allows defense budgets to increase by 2 percent over inflation between 2013 and 2021. But the base budget of the Pentagon’s future force will exceed that budget. The Defense Department’s Future Years Defense Program estimates a $527 billion overage by 2021. This estimate assumes no cost growth in acquisition, military construction or family housing.
The overage will come in closer to $822 billion, according to the CBO report. That estimate is based on “cost factors and growth rates that reflect the department’s actual experience and Congressional action in recent years.”
The CBO offered four options to bring the defense budget into the black. They are:
Option 1. Preserve force structure; cut acquisition and operations. End strength would be maintained. Cost savings would come by reducing acquisition and operations — from 13 percent in 2013 to 31 percent in 2021.
This would be a tough pill to swallow.
An $18 billion shortfall has forced the Army to initiate a 30 percent cut to base operations and training. Four out of five BCTs will be unable and unprepared to meet the needs of combatant commanders. Six divisions will not have the gear they need. Some soldiers will report directly to units from boot camp without advanced individual training. Research, development, test and evaluation investments have been cut by $890 million under sequestration, while procurement programs will be cut by $2.6 billion, or nearly 15 percent.
Option 2. Cut acquisition and operations; phase in reductions in force structure. Saving would be achieved by an equal end strength cut across each service over five years and reduced acquisition and operations for those that remain. The cuts would include seven BCTs, 28 major warships, two Marine regiments and 11 Air Force fighter squadrons. Some cuts could be avoided if the services used “tiered readiness,” which allows units to fall to lower readiness standards when not expected to deploy.
Option 3. Achieve savings primarily by cutting force structure. Cuts to acquisition and operations would be made through 2016 to stay within the Budget Control Act limits. But larger cuts to manpower would provide the bulk of savings. They would include 16 BCTs, 51 major warships, three Marine regiments and 22 Air Force fighter squadrons.
Option 4. Reduce force structure under a modified set of budget caps. Acquisition and operations would be protected under this option, but your job would not. Cuts would include 18 BCTs, 58 major warships, three Marine regiments and 25 Air Force fighter squadrons.
“The effect of such reductions on national security is beyond the scope of this paper,” the CBO report said. “Although these options would represent a significant scaling back of DoD’s plans, U.S. military forces have substantial technological and operational advantages over those of other nations today. Therefore, policymakers may find it acceptable for the United States to reduce the size of its military as a decade of overseas conflicts draws to a close.”
Room for change
There is some wiggle room in each of these options. The CBO report was based on a Pentagon force that had the Army at 37 infantry BCTs as it rolled into fiscal 2018. The service already is studying plans to reduce the number of infantry BCTs to 32, each having three battalions. The planned force structure also includes 20 heavy BCTs and nine Stryker BCTs.
Option 4 would reduce those numbers to 14 heavy, seven Stryker and 27 Infantry BCTs.
The CBO report used the heavy BCT model to defend such cuts. It costs $310 million per year to operate a heavy BCT. That number includes the full cost of pay and benefits for approximately 3,700 soldiers and the cost to maintain and equip M1 Abrams tanks and M2/M3 Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
The Army would save an additional $540 million annually if it cut the BCT’s supporting units, such as artillery, engineering and logistics. The subsequent reduction in overhead costs such as recruiting, training and housing would save another $730 million, which would bring the annual savings to $1.6 billion.
Defense and service personnel in congressional testimony Feb. 27 said decisions on troop strength could be made within 30 to 60 days.