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News Opinion Editorial

A smaller, more nimble force [Editorial]

The plan unveiled this week by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to substantially cut the size of U.S. military forces reflects a hard-eyed acknowledgment of today's strategic, political and budgetary realities. With the nation winding down the last of the two large land wars it has fought over the past decade, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the end of the Cold War now more than 20 years behind us, the massive military establishment the U.S. has maintained for more than 70 years to deter potential adversaries is no longer optimally sized for long-term sustainability or for dealing with contemporary threats.

Mr. Hagel is proposing to shrink the Army to pre-World War II levels — from 570,000 active duty troops to between 440,000 and 450,000 soldiers — and to eliminate an entire class of Air Force attack jets. At the same time he would beef up special operations units and invest in new equipment and technologies for the force that remains. It's unclear what effect, if any, the proposed cuts would have on Maryland and its economy, but that shouldn't be the main consideration for this or any of the states that are home to significant numbers of military personnel, bases or industries. What's more important is whether Mr. Hagel can make good on his word that the current military can be restructured into a smaller, more nimble force without compromising the nation's ability to defend itself in any future conflict.

In outlining his plan, Mr. Hagel stressed that it was driven not only by budget constraints but also by the possibility that adversaries could gain access to advanced technologies that deprive U.S. forces of their traditional advantages in weaponry and tactics. Our technological superiority can no longer be taken for granted, he warned.

That's why it's important for members of Congress not to view the coming changes as a zero-sum game in which they fight to retain a share of an ever-shrinking defense budget pie for their states and districts. Fortunately, Maryland appears to be reasonably well-positioned to avoid the worst shocks to its economy since a substantial proportion of the armed forces personnel stationed here are involved in electronic intelligence-collecting and cyber warfare missions, two areas of the military that actually are expected to grow in size as a result of the proposed restructuring. The state would, however, take a hit from Mr. Hagel's plan to eliminate the A-10 anti-tank aircraft, several of which operate out of Maryland.

It's almost axiomatic that military organizations tend to prepare for the next war as if it will be fought the same way the last one was — no matter how much weapons, tactics and strategy may have changed. Mr. Hagel recognizes that the U.S. can't afford to fall into that trap. In the foreseeable future the most serious threats to U.S. security are likely to come from terrorist groups, rogue states and even sophisticated criminal organizations, not massed enemy tank formations or naval ships. This is the reality military planners must try to imagine when assessing the country's future defense requirements.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the plan, though, is Mr. Hagel's proposal for controlling the cost of military salaries and benefits. His budget calls for active duty personnel and retirees to pay more for health care and for cuts to a variety of benefits, ranging from tax-free housing allowances to subsidies for commissaries. It has led to an outcry from veterans groups, who say it would cost soldiers hundreds and in some cases thousands of dollars a year. Mr. Hagel counters that those costs are ballooning — the average pay and benefits for an active duty member of the military have risen from $54,000 to $110,000 in the last decade, a far greater rate of growth than in the private sector or in other parts of the government.

Congress should look closely at Mr. Hagel's proposals on compensation but not reject them out of hand. We need a compensation structure that both recognizes the armed forces' service and continues to make an all-volunteer military an attractive career path for highly qualified recruits. But in an era when our security will depend more than ever on the training and technology our forces deploy, not on sheer numbers of troops, we cannot let compensation costs crowd out everything else in the Pentagon's budget.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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