Army's plan to cut 40,000 troops could expand if Washington's budget impasse persists

In the midst of a war against the Islamic State that the Obama administration says will last many years, the Army is moving ahead with big troop cuts. And they could grow even larger unless Congress and the White House find a way to stop further across-the-board spending reductions this fall.

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Army leaders were notifying members of Congress Wednesday with details of how they intend to reduce the active-duty force from 490,000 soldiers to 450,000 within two years. The size of the reduction was announced months ago, but congressional delegations have been waiting for word on how the cuts would be distributed and timed; troop reductions can inflict significant economic pain on communities reliant on military base populations.

If a new round of automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, goes ahead, the Army says it will have to reduce even further, to 420,000 soldiers.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, has said he can accept the planned reduction of 40,000 soldiers over the next two years, which the Army plans to implement by trimming the size of numerous units. The biggest cuts would be to an infantry unit at Fort Benning, Georgia, and an airborne infantry unit at Fort Richardson in Alaska. Each would shrink from about 4,000 soldiers to about 1,050, defense officials said Wednesday. Those details were first reported Tuesday by USA Today. The full plan for specific cuts is expected to be made public by the Army on Thursday.

In Odierno's view, being forced to shrink the Army is not the hardest part of coping with years-long budget wrangling between the Congress and the White House. Even more difficult, he says, is the uncertainty for military planners and the nation's soldiers.

"The thing I worry about is it has put a lot of turbulence in the Army and brought a lot of angst to our soldiers," he told reporters May 28. As he nears the end of his tenure as Army chief, Odierno said the only thing that could push the service off its course toward modernization is more budget uncertainty.

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"The unpredictability is killing us," he said.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter agrees.

"We've been going one year at a time budgetarily now for several years straight, and it's extremely disruptive to the operations of the department," Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. "It is managerially inefficient, because we're in this herky-jerky process."

It may not get any smoother anytime soon. Congressional Republicans are proposing to give President Barack Obama the extra billions he wants for defense in the budget year starting Oct. 1. But Obama says he can't accept their plan because it maneuvers around spending caps in a way that does not also provide spending relief in non-defense areas of the budget. This portends a September showdown between Congress and the White House.

The Army says it needs to start moving ahead with planned troop reductions, although most will be accomplished through attrition and forced retirement of officers rather than layoffs of enlisted soldiers.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday that personnel reductions are among the few ways the Army can achieve required savings in a short time.

"People who believe the world is safer, that we can do with less defense spending and 40,000 fewer soldiers, will take this as good news. I am not one of those people," he said.

Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the cuts make no sense.

"Any conceivable strategic rationale for this cut to Army end-strength has been overturned by the events of the last few years from the rise of ISIL, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Ebola crisis, and more," McCain said Wednesday. If a new round of budget cuts takes place, the Army will have to shrink further, he said, and "we will have too few soldiers who could enter a fight without proper training or equipment."

Members of Congress generally oppose shrinking the size of the military, especially if the cuts might affect bases in their states or districts. But they also have opposed other forms of savings proposed by the Pentagon, including reforming the military health care or retirement systems, eliminating older weapons systems or closing bases.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska, told Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at Tuesday's hearing that he was opposed to shrinking the size of the 4th Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division, an airborne infantry unit based at Fort Richardson, Alaska, because he wanted to save the Army from a "strategic blunder."

Dempsey told Sullivan that Congress has been "telling us 'no'" to money-saving changes that could reduce the need for troop cuts.

"We have $1 trillion — that's a T, not a B — a trillion dollars less in budget authority over 10 years. We've said from the beginning, it's a disaster," Dempsey said.

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