Congress pushes back on Army plan to cut tens of thousands of soldiers
WASHINGTON — Senators on the Armed Services Committee said Thursday it was time to rethink the Army’s planned drawdown amid growing threats abroad, including the Islamic State group and Russia.
The senators’ comments were followed later in the day by 12 House lawmakers filing a bill to block any manpower cuts.
The opposition came just as the Army unveiled its budget proposal for 2017 this week and lawmakers kicked off hearings on funding the military. Cutting soldiers was a way for the Army to save money amid spending caps imposed by Congress and resistance will likely trigger a fight over how to pay for more troops.
“It seems to me when I hear some of these threats it is time for us to think about not drawing down and how we can best protect this nation,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said Thursday during a hearing on the future of the service.
In 2016 and 2017, the Army is planning to cut 10,000 soldiers from the active-duty ranks, bringing the force to 460,000 soldiers. The Army National Guard would be cut by 7,000 and the Army Reserve by 3,000.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., criticized what he called “budget-driven” cuts that do not fit the current needs of the military.
“On the present course, we are running the risk that in a crisis, we will have too few soldiers who will enter a fight without proper training or equipment,” he said.
Overall, the Army announced last summer that it planned to eventually reduce its active-duty strength from 490,000 to 450,000. The cuts would affect military bases in Georgia, Texas, Alaska, Washington and Hawaii and save about $7 billion in four years, according to the service’s projections.
The plan was created out of necessity due to funding shortfalls and it has not been popular. President Barack Obama’s nominee to be the next Army secretary, Eric Fanning, said he would reverse the drawdown if he is confirmed.
Retired Gen. Carter Ham, who was chairman of a commission that just reviewed the future of the service, said he would recommend keeping higher numbers of soldiers if the money was available.
Retired Gen. James Thurman, who also sat on the commission, told the Senate on Thursday that he was concerned about the Army’s ability to confront a resurgent Russia and North Korea as it pursues nuclear missile technology.
“I will tell you I am very concerned because I think we have major warning signs in front of us right now … There needs to be another analysis of what is the right-size Army that America needs,” Thurman said.
Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, a subcommittee chairman on the House Armed Services Committee, and Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., a committee member, introduced and were the lead co-sponsors of the House bill halting a drawdown. They said shedding soldiers now would be the wrong move amid increased threats around the world and would tie the hands of the next president.
“It is clear from all of the testimony we’ve received and the information that we’ve received from the Army that this [drawdown] could break the Army, [and] that it would significantly hamper the next president of the United States in their opportunities and capabilities for the military to protect the country,” said Turner, chairman of the Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee.
Gibson said the “assumptions have changed” since the original plan was created.
“We have seen even more stepped up attacks from the Islamic State and issues around the world on that score,” he said.
It was not immediately clear how much reversing the drawdown this year would cost. Money is tight in Washington and finding more of it in this budget season will likely require a political fight.
The defense budget — and the Army’s troop funding — is capped due to a bipartisan deal made in November. But House Republicans are already eyeing an emergency war fund, called Overseas Contingency Operations, as a way to pump up spending. Democrats have said the fund is capped at $59 billion but GOP lawmakers contend that is just a floor and can be increased.
When asked whether the drawdown debate will center on the OCO fund, Turner said: “Absolutely, I think that will be part of the debate.”