WASHINGTON — The Army’s planned reduction of 40,000 troops by late 2017 will neither hurt the force’s threat readiness nor cut a sizable amount from the $500 billion defense budget, experts and a military spokesman said.
The Army’s savings from cutting 40,000 troops would amount to roughly $5 billion, or about 1 percent of the Pentagon budget, said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a centrist think tank.
The cuts would be carried out mostly through a process of natural attrition, said Lt. Col. Joe Buccino, an Army spokesman — meaning that the Army would allow enlistments to expire over time without recruiting new soldiers.
“It’s not as if they’re going to lay off 40,000 people,” said Harrison.
Buccino said that the troop reductions, which would bring the overall force beneath pre-9/11 levels for the first time since 2001, would leave the Army in a precarious, but not untenable, position.
“At 450,000, we’re just at the water’s edge being able to do our mission,” Buccino said Wednesday.
And Buccino warned that an imminent budget showdown in Congress, which could make a significant dent in the funding the Army requested in February, would be dangerous.
“At that point, the Army’s flexibility would deteriorate,” he said.
Experts criticized the move as an attempt to quickly fix the Pentagon’s long struggle to save money and increase efficiency. Dan Grazier, a fellow at the government watchdog Project on Government Oversight, said the cuts signify “backward” priorities at the Defense Department.
“They’re essentially trying to save a couple of pennies with manning levels in order to fund their dazzling technologies in the belief that technology will win the next war,” he said.
Grazier, a former Marine Corps officer who studies defense spending reform, said expensive weapons systems like the F-35 fighter jet are taking up more than their share of the budget.
“This is another demonstration that the Pentagon hasn’t quite figured that out yet,” he said.
Army spokeswoman Cynthia Smith confirmed that the cuts would take place over the next two years. The Army initially announced the troop cuts in February, when it requested $534 billion for next year’s budget. But according to the Army’s proposal, the cuts would have been phased in over three years, not two as was reported Tuesday.
On Thursday, Buccino disputed that claim. February’s budget proposal, he said, maintains that the Army would reduce its end strength to 450,000 by October 2018, although the Army’s force readiness would be depleted to the same number of troops twelve months earlier.
“It’s a distinction we’re not trying to get into right now,” Buccino said.
Buccino said the Army has not finalized year-to-year reduction rates, but he said the changes would be gradual. He said an official announcement scheduled for Thursday afternoon would go into more detail.
Army troop levels reached a recent peak in 2011, when the force comprised nearly 570,000 soldiers. The numbers have steadily decreased since 2012.
But what can 490,000 troops do that 450,000 cannot? Harrison said he couldn’t picture a scenario where a difference of 40,000 troops would be a factor.
For example, he estimated that an invasion and occupation of Iran would require a much greater force than the Army now has, but that dealing with the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq or responding to an invasion of South Korea by North Korea should be feasible with 450,000 troops.
Mark Cancian, a senior security adviser at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, said the proposed troop levels are sufficient for conflicts in which the US is currently involved, but cautioned against further engagement without bringing in new troops.
“You’d be taking risks with the big wars,” he said.
Experts said that the effects of a two-year force cut were unlikely to be felt on a macro level, but that soldiers stationed on nearly every base in the country would see significant changes, some of which may be unwelcome.
The reduction of 40,000 troops is based on the assumption that Congress will approve next year’s defense budget as proposed, said Harrison. That includes an extra $38 billion in funding beyond what Congress can authorize without passing special legislation to break spending caps.
If the Republican-controlled Congress decides to raise the defense budget cap, Democrats are likely to try to force them to do the same with non-defense spending, Harrison said. Republicans can, however, allocate the $38 billion as special war funding, which would appear outside the defense budget.
Without the extra $38 billion, the troop reduction would be increased to 70,000 troops, decreasing the force to a total of 420,000.
The cuts are little more than fiscal reality, said Harrison.
“The Army is unlikely to be able to continue to afford the force it’s had so it’ll have to reduce its force,” he said. “The question is how to go about doing that.”
Phoebe Tollefson contributed reporting