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Army to shrink; veteran health costs could rise

Defense secretary also calls for another round of base closures in 2014

The Defense Department has targeted the aging A-10 ground attack jet and the high-flying U-2 spy plane for retirement and has proposed downsizing the Army to its lowest troop level since prior to World War II because of budget pressures and changing priorities after 13 years at war, according to the Pentagon’s top leaders.

The U.S. military’s fiscal year 2015 budget will propose lower troop strength in each service branch, both active and reserve, a 1 percent wage raise for military personnel and a pay freeze for generals and admirals. Military retirees and some active-duty family members would be asked to pay higher Tricare health care deductibles and co-payments, and active-duty service members would pay 5 percent of their housing costs, according to a budget overview Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel outlined Monday.

The Pentagon will press for another round of base closures in 2017, Hagel said.

“We are repositioning to focus on the strategic challenges and opportunities that will define our future: new technologies, new centers of power, and a world that is growing more volatile, more unpredictable, and in some instances more threatening to the United States,” the defense secretary said.

The Army could see troop levels drop from about 520,000 soldiers today to 440,000 to 450,000 with the draw down of the war in Afghanistan and the need for modernization programs, Hagel said. Troop levels could drop precariously to 420,000 if sequestration levels continued, officials said.

While the Pentagon’s budget would reduce the number of troops overall, it would boost the number of special forces by nearly 4,000.

The White House and the Defense Department reviewed the military’s needs and capabilities in a push for modernization and readiness over retaining the size of the military with the wind down in the war in Afghanistan ahead, officials said.

“There are difficult decisions ahead,” he said at a press conference broadcast from the Pentagon. “That is the reality we are living in.”

Future of sequester cuts

An expected $496 billion base defense budget will have an additional plea for money to compensate for the effects of sequestration. The White House wants an extra $115 billion over five years for defense spending above spending cap limits through 2019. For the next fiscal year, the White House will ask Congress for $26 billion under an “Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative” to raise military readiness levels after sequestration hurt training and operations, Hagel said. The money would derive from spending and tax reforms which were not outlined in detail.

“If sequestration levels return in (2016) the risks grow and the options we can provide the nation dramatically shrink,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Hagel said the Pentagon focused on “capability over capacity” in the Air Force to protect the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the KC-46 refueling tanker and a proposed long-range strike bomber. The Air Force would rely on the unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk, which has a program office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, in place of the U-2, a reversal of the Pentagon’s earlier stance. The Defense Department urged spending $1 billion on a next-generation jet engine technology to lower maintenance costs and increase fuel efficiency.

The Air Force would buy fewer armed drones because of the drawdown in Afghanistan and concerns about the survivability of UAVs on modern battlefields, Hagel said. Eventually, the Air Force will have an all-MQ-9 Reaper fleet replacing the less capable MQ-1 Predator, the secretary added.

If sequestration continued in 2016 and beyond, the Air Force would “make far more significant cuts” that may mean fewer flying hours, retiring 80 aircraft, including the KC-10 refueling tanker and the Global Hawk Block 40 fleet, and 24 fewer buys of the F-35 through 2019, Hagel said. The Air Force has said it will reduce the number of active-duty airmen by 25,000 the next five years

U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces, said in a statement Hagel’s comments “should raise serious concerns” that “the president’s delayed (fiscal year) 2015 budget will greatly impact our national security and not reflect the increased security risks around the world.” Sequestration has imposed “massive strain” on the military, he added.

Ohio’s two U.S. senators focused on cost-cutting while facing the nation’s security threats.

“We need to ensure that as we find savings in the Defense Department we do not create unnecessary risk to our force or in the future,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said in an email.

“A meaningful review of our military infrastructure must save taxpayers money while making smart investments in cutting-edge programs needed to meet the next generation of security threats facing our nation,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said in an email.

Wright-Patt could benefit, expert says

Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., said the Air Force and Wright-Patterson could fare well under the budget proposal.

“This is a reasonably good budget request for the Air Force and the Wright-Patterson because the service’s three top modernization priorities – a new fighter, a new bomber, and a new tanker – are all intact. Air Force space programs also seem to be in good shape,” he said in an email.

“The big question mark for the Air Force isn’t what’s in the defense budget but what Congress will do with it,” he added. “If Capitol Hill rejected efforts to close unneeded bases and retire aging aircraft like the A-10 tank-killer, then much-needed investments like a new training aircraft may have to be delayed.”

Hagel’s references to the importance of research and development and a next generation jet engine could mean good news for Wright-Patterson, but it was too early to speculate with certainty, said Michael Gessel, Dayton Development Coalition vice president of federal programs.

Ethan Rosenkranz, a national security expert with the Project On Government Oversight in Washington, D.C., said the watchdog group believes the Air Force should keep the A-10 because it’s the best to provide close air support to ground troops compared to its intended replacement, the F-35A.

“The Air Force has been trying ever since this (A-10) program’s inception to cancel it,” he said in an interview.

The jet has flown missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and became a highlight of the Persian Gulf War in 1991 because of its tank-busting performance.

Retiring the A-10 would save $3.5 billion over the next five years, a four-decade old “single-purpose” aircraft that could not survive threats from advanced aircraft and air defenses, Hagel told reporters.

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