WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called Thursday for shrinking the Army and Marine Corps by as many as 47,000 troops, opting to cut ground forces in response to pressure from the White House and Congress to reduce the defense budget.
The proposed budget plan would also eliminate two key weapons systems and raise the cost of health insurance for some military retirees.
The proposed troop cuts, part of $78 billion in budget savings outlined by Gates on Thursday at a Pentagon news conference, would not begin until 2015 and 2016. By then, Gates emphasized, U.S. forces are due to be entirely gone from Iraq and hopefully will be drawing down in Afghanistan.
The decision to shrink U.S. ground forces is a reversal for the Pentagon only four years after the Army and Marines were expanded in order to fight simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The move reflects the growing recognition that the larger force structure will not be required or affordable indefinitely.
But the move also comes with risks.
If a major drawdown does not occur in Afghanistan by 2015, as the White House timetable calls for, the military could find itself needing to expand its ranks again, a process that often takes years. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said they believed the reduction in force was modest and that the risks were acceptable.
The proposal to shrink the Army and Marines came on the same day that the Pentagon said it was sending more than 1,000 additional Marines to Helmand province on a short-term deployment aimed at helping keep pressure on the Taliban in violent parts of the province during the winter.
The troops are part of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Force, which was already in the region aboard the USS Kearsarge, according to a statement issued by U.S. Central Command, which called the move a “short-term deployment” but did not say how long they would remain in Afghanistan.
In addition to the $78 billion in spending cuts, the military services had come up with $100 billion in savings over five years that would be redirected within other military programs, Gates said.
Gates didn’t say how much he thinks the annual health care premium should rise for military retirees who are still of working age. But he noted that many military retirees take full-time jobs after retirement, while keeping their military insurance, whose basic annual enrollment fee of $460 for a family hasn’t changed since 1995.
He promised next year’s budget will include “modest increases” to premiums for retirees of working age, with a goal of reducing the Pentagon’s medical expenses by $7 billion over five years.
Three major weapons systems would be affected by the plan.
Gates also announced that he was overhauling for the second time the development of the F-35 fighter.
Gone under the Gates proposal: a $14 billion amphibious Marine vehicle, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, designed by General Dynamics Corp., and a ground-launched missile produced by Raytheon Co. that was part of a future combat system for the Army.
Gates said that he reluctantly accepted the need for troop cuts after the Obama administration budget blueprint, expected to be released later this month, ordered a $78 billion reduction in planned defense spending over the next five years.
Even with this reduction, the Pentagon plans to spend $553 billion in fiscal year 2012, a 3 percent increase over 2011 levels, and for modest increases or flat spending in each of the next four years. That number excludes the spending on Iraq and Afghanistan, which totaled about $159 billion last year.
Gates called the budget “the minimum level of defense spending necessary,” but he conceded that there is likely to be fierce debate in Congress in coming months as efforts to cut the deficit gather momentum.
“Ever since taking this post, now more than four years ago I have called for protecting force structure and for maintaining modest but real growth” in military spending, Gates said in a detailed statement lasting close to 40 minutes. “I would prefer that this continue to be the case.”
But, he added, “the Pentagon cannot presume to exempt itself” from the budget pressure facing the rest of the government.
The Army would shrink by 27,000 and the Marine Corps by up to 20,000 under the Pentagon plan.
Currently the Army has 569,600 active-duty personnel and the Marines have 202,000. The Army is already scheduled to come down to 545,000 by fiscal year 2013, cuts that would bring ground forces levels roughly back to the levels they were before the 2007 troop surge in Iraq.
“I would emphasize both of these services will be larger after these cuts than they were when I became secretary of defense,” Gates said.
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