Hagel To Defend Pentagon Budget Before Senate Panel

The Pentagon's budget for next year would cut the size of the Armed Forces and begin to rein in expensive benefits, including health care. The Army would be reduced to its lowest level in years.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

There will be more congressional division over the new Pentagon budget. It calls for big cuts in the size of the U.S. Army. And many Republicans are saying that now, with Russian troops inside Ukraine, is precisely the wrong time to shrink the military. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will defend the budget plan on Capitol Hill today.

We're joined now by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So Tom, let's start with Ukraine and the army cuts. The Pentagon is reducing the force to its lowest level in years, right?

BOWMAN: That's right, Linda. In terms of numbers of soldiers, it's the smallest army since the early days of World War II back in 1940. Now, the proposal is to cut the size of the army to 440,000 to 450,000 troops and the army had anticipated going down to 490,000. But as one Pentagon official put it yesterday, the reference to World War II is strategically meaningless because you're talking about a more capable total force than you had in World War II and also you're facing different kinds of threats, mostly terrorism.

WERTHEIMER: So is there any merit to the charge that there are still threats from nations with big armies like Russia?

BOWMAN: Well, yeah, there is merit to that and you have folks like South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and Republicans in the Armed Services Committee in particular saying don't cut the army this much. But even compared to armies like Russia or China's, the U.S. military is still far more capable. They have better ships and weapons; stealthier, faster aircraft, better training, which is why the Pentagon is also saying that, listen, the military, even at these cuts, can deal with a full range of threats, from a commando raid against a terrorist hideout, let's say, to a full-scale war.

Now, keep in mind, these cuts, Linda, are just a proposal. Congress can, and likely will, make changes in this proposed Pentagon budget and even if these army cuts are approved as is, they would not go into effect until the end of 2017.

WERTHEIMER: But military cuts are coming. The military must cut its budget. Why would the Pentagon look to cut the size of the force instead of cutting something else?

BOWMAN: Well, it's kind of a tradeoff. If you want to modernize the force, come up with new and improved weapons like the next generation bomber in the Air Force and other equipment -the Marine Corps and Army are looking for a new ground vehicle - you have to find the money somewhere and it's a tradeoff. So that means making the force smaller. And cutting personnel also saves on things like pay and benefits, which have grown a huge amount over the past decade.

WERTHEIMER: Things like healthcare are very expensive in the military just as they are in the civilian world, I guess.

BOWMAN: That's right. And a former defense secretary, Bob Gates, for example, said repeatedly these benefits are, quote, eating us alive. So this budget looks at smaller pay raises, they're asking soldiers to pay more for healthcare, more for housing, more for the food they buy at commissaries on bases, and the Pentagon estimates that all this could save $12 billion over the next five years.

WERTHEIMER: Any chance that Congress would agree to cut benefits?

BOWMAN: Well, probably not. It's going to be very, very difficult. It's politically perilous for lawmakers because powerful veterans groups and others don't want to see this happen and some lawmakers are saying, listen, you're balancing the budget on the backs of soldiers. But the Pentagon is saying, listen, if we don't get these reductions in pay and benefits, we'll have to find other savings inside the Pentagon budget. So you have this tug of war going on.

WERTHEIMER: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, thank you very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Linda.

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