Pentagon budget slashes benefits

Benefits for active­ duty personnel and their families would be slashed under a budget proposal released Monday by the Pentagon.

The budget would dramatically reduce the Army’s size and trigger a new round of controversial base closures while cutting healthcare copays and deductibles and reducing the subsidies military families get for housing and low-cost goods.

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged the cuts would be controversial but argued they were unavoidable in a belt-tightening era following the end of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Congress has taken some important steps in recent years to control the growth in compensation spending, but we must do more,” he said.

Lawmakers, as well as groups that represent veterans and the military, accused the Pentagon of balancing its pocketbook on the backs of soldiers and their families.

“We know the Defense Department must make difficult budget decisions, but these cuts would hit service members, making it harder for them and their families to make ends meet,” said Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

Coupled with a 1 percent ceiling on pay hikes and assuming a 5 percent annual increase in housing costs, the Military Officers Association of America estimated an Army sergeant with a family of four would see an annual loss of $1,400. An Army captain would lose $2,100, it said.

The group said those figures doesn’t account for other costs that would affect military families, such as increased prices at military commissaries because of another budget proposal and an increase in healthcare fees for military family members. 

Hagel cast the cuts as unavoidable and necessary to avoid steeper cuts to military personnel.

He said payroll costs have risen 40 percent more than in the private sector.

While he said those hikes were the “right thing to do” during war, “today DOD faces a vastly different fiscal situation … We must now consider fair and responsible adjustments to our overall military compensation package.”

“This is the first time in 13 years we will be presenting a budget to the Congress of the United States that’s not a war-footing budget,” Hagel said.

The budget includes proposals that would cut the growth of housing allowances for service members and their families and stop reimbursing renter’s insurance entirely. Subsidies at domestic military commissaries that provide military families with low-cost goods would be reduced.

Only the medically retired would escape proposed cuts to healthcare copays and increases to deductibles.

While basic pay raises will be held to 1 percent in 2015 under the budget, general and flag officers would see a pay freeze. 

The budget also calls for a new round of base closings in 2017, which lawmakers have fiercely resisted during the past two budget requests.

Over the next five years, the Pentagon plans to reduce the size of the active duty Army from 520,000 members to between 440,000 and 450,000. The Army National Guard would also be reduced from 355,000 to about 335,000, and the Army Reserve would be cut from 205,000 to 195,000. The Marine Corps would also shrink, from about 190,000 to 182,000. 

The call for a smaller military represents a turn from a decade of ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when Army troop levels peaked at 570,000 active troops.

Hagel acknowledged “some added risk” in having a small ground force, but he said ground troops would still be able to defeat an enemy in one theater while defending the homeland and supporting air and naval forces in another. 

The Pentagon also proposed cuts to programs not geared toward future wars. 

It would eliminate the Air Force’s A-10 “Warthog” attack jets, which provide ground troops with close air support. That would save $3.5 billion over five years, Hagel said.

It would retire the Air Force’s entire fleet of U­2 manned spy planes and replace them with unmanned Global Hawk aircraft.

The budget cuts the number of Navy littoral combat ships from 52 to 32.

The elimination of the A-10 will be particularly controversial with lawmakers.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) called it a “serious mistake” that would cost lives and warned she would fight it.

By making the cuts, the Pentagon is protecting its investments in special operations, cyber resources and the next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

It will also invest $26 billion in what officials are calling an “Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative” that would be used for readiness and modernization.

Officials said the White House would release more details about the fund on March 4, when the administration releases its full 2015 budget request. 

Although the 2015 budget falls within the $496 billion budget cap imposed by Congress, the Pentagon’s budget plan for the next five years would exceed those ceilings by $115 billion. 

Unless those ceilings are raised, Pentagon officials said deeper cuts would be made, including reducing the Army’s active duty size to 420,000 troops.

“Sequestration requires cuts so deep, so quickly, that we cannot shrink the size of our military fast enough,” Hagel said.

This story was posted at 1:43 p.m. and updated at 6:06 p.m. and 8:34 p.m.