In crafting a military budget for a nation not at war for the first time in 13 years, the challenge is to transform U.S. forces to meet changing security demands while slashing spending.
There is pain and risk in the plan that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel previewed this week to meet those twin imperatives. But the transformation has to happen, and the $496-billion military budget for 2015 that the administration will send to Congress next week — down from $520 billion in 2014, not counting $92 billion for the war in Afghanistan — is a reasonable blueprint.
It would reduce troop strength in every military branch, active and reserve, while increasing only special forces. For instance the Army would be cut from 520,000 active-duty troops to about 440,000, the smallest number in decades. Overhead would be slashed through cuts in headquarters budgets and civilian personnel. An entire class of Air Force fighter jets would be eliminated. And active-duty military personnel would get a pay raise of only 1 percent.
The downsizing is appropriate, but it isn't risk free. Hagel said it would create some gaps in training and diminish the U.S. military's capability to execute extended or simultaneous ground operations.
But the public has no stomach for long, grinding ground wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. The threat from nations with big armies has been surpassed by terrorism, which is better met with small, mobile special forces. And deep troop cuts would enable the military to hit spending targets in the Budget Control Act of 2011 while sustaining readiness and technological superiority, a necessary balance.
But Congress has to get real. Hagel warned that a return to the deep, across-the-board cuts slated for 2016 under sequestration would compromise national security. That's debatable, but Congress can't keep demanding savings while rejecting attempts to actually cut spending.
It can't continue pumping up military pay and benefits that have risen 40 percent more than growth in the private sector since 2001 — and more than the Department of Defense requested. Congress can't keep rejecting benefit cuts, such as the small reduction in cost-of-living increases for some military retirees it passed and then repealed this year. It can't continue favoring weapons systems based on where they're built rather than whether they're needed, or rejecting the department's request to close domestic bases, as it has for two years.
This is an opportunity to create the military the nation needs. Congress must seize the moment.