Soldiers from the Estonian Army and the U.S. 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) conduct a joint patrol Nov. 5 in Poland. (NATO)
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon said Tuesday its spending plan for 2015 would begin to reshape the military after more than a decade of war without lessening America’s commitment to support European allies at a time of tension with Russia.
The proposed $496 billion budget reflects what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel calls a choice to field a smaller but more modern force rather than a larger one less prepared for combat. Some in Congress, however, see that as an approach that weakens U.S. capabilities in a period of growing uncertainty in Europe and Asia.
The proposed budget is part of a $3.9 trillion federal budget that President Barack Obama sent to Congress Tuesday.
Under the proposed defense plan, the Army would shrink from 490,000 active-duty soldiers to 440,000-450,000 over the coming five years — the smallest since 1940, prior to the buildup for World War II, when the Army had 267,000 active-duty troops and did not have the global commitments of today’s Army.
The budget retains a commitment to NATO and to building a missile defense system in Europe. Land-based missile interceptors would be deployed in Romania in 2015 and in Poland in 2018, under the Pentagon plan. The overall missile defense budget would be $8.5 billion.
In previewing the budget last week, Hagel described it as the first to fully reflect the nation’s transition from 13 years of war.
“Although the future force will be smaller, it will be ready, capable and able to project power over great distances,” Hagel wrote in the introduction to a strategy review released Tuesday as a companion to the budget.
The companion document, required by Congress and called the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, was written prior to Russia’s military moves on the Crimea region of Ukraine. It said that while the administration will continue shifting its focus toward the Asia-Pacific region, Europe will remain an important partner.
“Europe is home to our most stalwart and capable allies and partners, and the strategic access and support these countries provide is essential to ensuring that the U.S. armed forces are more agile, expeditionary, and responsive to global challenges,” it said.
The strategy review drew sharp criticism from Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who called it short-sighted and said he would push for legislation requiring the Pentagon to re-do the review.
The U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan is scheduled to end in December. Obama has not yet decided, however, whether to authorize a non-combat mission starting in 2015 that would continue training and advising Afghan forces.
Because of the uncertainty over a U.S. military role in Afghanistan beyond this year, the Pentagon’s 2015 budget includes what it called a “placeholder” sum of $79 billion for involvement in Afghanistan. The Pentagon said it would amend the budget plan once it decided on the scope of its post-2014 role in Afghanistan.
At the core of Hagel’s overall plan for 2015 and beyond is the notion that after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that proved longer and more costly than foreseen, the U.S. military will no longer be sized to conduct large and protracted ground wars. It will put more emphasis on versatile, agile forces that can project power over great distances, including in Asia.