Hagel proposes sensible cuts in military spending

February 25, 2014 

Last summer, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told soldiers with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg: “You have to lead ... based on the reality of what’s in front of you.”

The reality that’s in front of Hagel is that the United States is winding down from two long and costly wars and that the military is shifting to an emphasis on readiness rather than engagement. For Hagel, that means leading the military by paring its ranks and its costs in the Pentagon budget he proposed Monday.

The most notable shrinkage would be in the Army. Under Hagel’s proposals, the ranks would decrease over the coming years from the current level of 520,000 troops to about 440,000. The diminished size – the smallest Army since 1940 – would reflect a change in strategy. Instead of maintaining an Army large enough to fight two wars at once, the Pentagon wants an Army better equipped for counter-terrorism missions and well-versed in the new challenges of cyberwarfare.

In addition to cuts in active-duty troops, Hagel also proposes retiring some aircraft and ships and trimming the Army National Guard and Army Reserve. He also wants to slow the military’s ballooning personnel costs related to wages, pensions and veteran care.

Hagel’s proposals are being received warily in North Carolina, a state with the third-largest military population in the nation. There were nearly 110,000 active-duty military personnel assigned to units in North Carolina as of March 2013. In addition, military spending supports more than 400,000 private sector and civilian government jobs in the state.

North Carolina’s U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and up for re-election this year, immediately took a defensive posture on the proposed cuts.

“I am deeply concerned about Secretary Hagel’s proposed reductions in personnel and service member benefits, and I will be closely reviewing the Defense Department’s proposed budget and will fight to protect North Carolina’s service members and their families, our military’s readiness and our nation’s safety,” Hagan, a Democrat, said in a statement.

Hagan’s reaction is a natural one and likely to be shared by all of the state’s federal and statewide office-holders. But the defense secretary’s proposals may not hit North Carolina as hard as other states. Military operations here – the 82nd Airborne, the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base and the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base – are crucial to the nation’s rapid response and likely to be spared major cuts. And greater investment in cyberwarfare might benefit the Research Triangle’s universities and companies.

Reducing personnel costs may mean an end to rising benefits for active, reserve and retired military here and across the nation, but clearly the compensation can’t continue to increase unabated. And no doubt military families are willing to make sacrifices for the good of the nation’s defense.

Hagel’s budget proposals represent a needed downshift after protracted wars and occupations that have cost the nation vast sums and will continue to impose costs in veterans’ care. Nearly half the 1.6 million veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have applied for disability benefits. A 2013 Harvard study estimated that the total cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts will be between $4 trillion and $6 trillion. Much of the spending is yet to come and includes long-term medical care and disability compensation for service members, veterans and families.

While Hagel’s proposals will trim military spending, they will hardly reduce the scale of United States’ investment in military personnel and equipment. The U.S. spent $682 billion on the military in 2012, more than countries with the next 10-highest military budgets combined.

In the end, Defense Department spending should be about defending the nation, not bolstering the economies of congressional districts or fattening the profits of defense contractors. Hagel is leading in response to what’s in front of the United States – the end of two wars and their continuing costs. Congress should follow him.

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