The cuts are simply too big.
That was the key takeaway Tuesday from a discussion of the Defense Department’s Strategic Choices and Management Review, which proposes options for the various budget scenarios DoD may face as a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011.
Most officials think that the defense cuts, no matter how they are implemented, will dramatically reduce the readiness and capabilities of the armed forces, jeopardizing U.S. national security.
That opinion was shared by two defense experts speaking at the Brookings Institution — Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Brookings, and Mackenzie Eaglen of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
“The kind of cuts to the U.S. Army being considered, I think, are highly imprudent and leave us catching onto the latest fad in warfare,” O’Hanlon said. “We’ve made that kind of mistake before as a country; we shouldn’t make it now.”
The strategic review analyzed three potential budget scenarios:
■ President Obama’s 2014 budget, which incorporates a $150 billion reduction in defense spending over the next 10 years.
■ The Budget Control Act of 2011 sequestration-level caps, which would cut another $52 billion from defense spending in fiscal 2014, with $500 billion in reductions for the armed forces over the next 10 years.
■ An “in-between” scenario, which reduces defense spending by about $250 billion over the next 10 years.
None of those options will allow the U.S. to maintain core military capabilities and readiness to protect America’s interests around the world, the experts said.
And, according to O’Hanlon, the review should have had an additional purpose: to warn against excessive defense cuts in a time of turbulence abroad.
“While Hagel and Carter understandably treaded lightly, there is a very troubling message in their findings,” he said.
The Army could lose another 70,000 to 100,000 soldiers in its active force and a comparable number in its reserve component under sequestration, according to O’Hanlon.
“That means another round of 15 to 20 percent cuts on top of the 15 percent cuts already underway,” he said. “The Army would wind up significantly smaller than in the Clinton administration or at any other time since before World War II.”
The budget is also chipping away at other military capabilities.
The Navy, whose fleet now stands at about 285 ships, will retire more than it will build over the next five years. Additionally, the Navy maintains 11 aircraft carrier strike groups; if sequestration goes through, that will go down eight or nine, according to Eaglen.
The Air Force has less than one-third the number of bombers it had during the Vietnam era, and most of its planes predate modern stealth technology.
“Nobody’s a winner because everybody is coming down,” said Eaglen.
Some think the strategic review goes too far, leaving the military without the ability to conduct one large operation while simultaneously sustaining perhaps two smaller, multinational ones — which is typically what they’ve been doing.
O’Hanlon’s recommendation is to have the capacity for “one war plus two missions,” or “one plus two.”
Those missions might, for example, include residual efforts in Afghanistan or contribution to a future multilateral stabilization force in Syria or Yemen.
“This one-plus-two approach strikes the right balance,” O’Hanlon said. “It is prudent because it provides some additional capability if and when the United States again engages in a major conflict, and because it provides a bit of a combat cushion should that war go less well than initially hoped.”
It also allows for a smaller Army than today — around 450,000 active-duty soldiers.
Many think the potential reductions outlined in the new Pentagon review are a bad idea not only because of the pace at which they would be carried out in the short term, but also because they would cut the U.S. military too much for the world in which we live.
“Everybody is watching, everybody is taking note,” Eaglen said. “Our allies are worried that we have a cut-and-run plan, and those who would seek to capitalize on a moment of weakness are also watching.”