The recommendations in the Department of Defense’s latest strategic review would produce both a hollow and aging military unable to engage in simultaneous conflicts involving U.S. interests, defense budget experts said Tuesday.
The experts spoke at the Brookings Institution about the Pentagon’s efforts to prepare for $500 billion in spending cuts during the next decade due to budget sequestration.
Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, noted that the sequestration cuts come on the heels of about $1 trillion in military spending reductions already enacted under President Barack Obama’s administration.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel discussed the so-called "Strategic Choices and Management Review," the Pentagon’s options for responding to the cuts, at the end of last month.
Eaglen and Brookings research director Michael O’Hanlon said Hagel presented a bleak outlook for the future of the military, including smaller forces, delayed equipment upgrades, and minimal training sessions.
The Pentagon’s review envisions an Army with less than 400,000 troops, down from about 560,000 during the peak of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and substantially smaller than the 800,000 troops the United States maintained in the Cold War-era Army of the 1980s, O’Hanlon said.
The U.S. Air Force and the Navy also face declining forces. More than half of the Air Force’s bombers could be retired largely without newer replacements, and two or three aircraft carrier strike groups could be cut. Roughly 60 percent of Navy forces, ships, and capabilities are associated with a carrier, Eaglen said.
The result is a military that will struggle to complete both a planned rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region and contingency operations in a still turbulent Middle East, Eaglen and O’Hanlon said.
"You should remember from history that you don’t always get to decide when wars end," O’Hanlon said. "You may get to decide when you start them."
The planned downsizing of the military’s global reach also reflects a subtle shift from the longstanding U.S. defense strategy of being prepared to fight two conflicts at once, O’Hanlon said.
He added that while a U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region would deter territorial encroachments by China—which continues to bolster its military budget by $10 billion annually—the military should also be equipped to participate in future international stabilization or peacekeeping missions in Syria or Yemen, for example.
"All of these things combined means that any scenario is at a minimum bending the [two-war] strategy, if not breaking it," Eaglen said.
O’Hanlon said the military could begin taking steps to avoid a tug-of-war situation for its resources by enacting needed reforms and working with Congress to decelerate the effects of sequestration.
Changes to the military’s compensation and benefit programs and efficiencies already identified by the Pentagon could save $125 billion in the next decade, he said.
Otherwise, the military will find itself in an untenable position, he said.
"Either you have zero F-35s or an Army less than 400,000—that’s the kind of choice you’re forced toward," he said.
"I don’t think we should live with either of those choices."