The Army may need to cut its number of brigade combat teams nearly in half to accommodate the Pentagon’s plans to slice the Army’s size to below 450,000 soldiers after 2017.
Gen. John Campbell, the Army’s vice chief of staff and second highest-ranking member, in an interview with The Hill said the service is already planning to make cuts to its combat brigades, basic Army units of 5,000 soldiers that can be deployed and sustain themselves overseas.
But he said the number of brigades would have to be reduced to below 32, the number tied to a troop strength of 490,000. The Army had 45 brigades last year.
“That 32 is tied to 490,000 not 450,000. ... At 450,000 or 420,000 we can’t keep the same amount,” Campbell said.
A Feb. 28 report from the Congressional Research Service cited an Army briefing suggesting active-duty brigades could be cut to 24 with an Army of 420,000 soldiers in 2019.
Cutting active-duty brigades by that much could dramatically alter U.S. capabilities overseas.
For example, the Army might not be able to keep two active-duty brigades in Europe.
That would send a negative signal to Eastern Europe, where fears about Russia have grown with that country’s military intervention in Ukraine.
It would leave the Pentagon with much fewer brigades to deploy around the world for military and humanitarian work. It would also reduce opportunities for training, and could limit U.S. support for some international missions.
The Congressional Research Service report said a 420,000-soldier Army would also mean reducing National Guard brigade combat teams (BCTs) to 22.
“An Army force structure of 24 [active] and 22 [reserve] BCTs lacks the capacity to conduct simultaneous major combat operations while defending the nation at home, sustaining minimal presence in critical regions, and retaining a Global Response Force (1 BCT) at the direction of the commander-in-chief,” the paper said.
Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the impact of cuts would depend on exactly what kind of brigades are cut.
For example, she said, cutting light infantry brigades would mean less capability to conduct counterinsurgency wars, while cutting heavy armored brigades would mean fewer tanks to use in a possible contingency.
“If you have a scenario that requires tanks, and you don’t have enough, our forces will do less well, and more people will get killed,” Bensahel said.
The cuts will also be controversial with Congress, because it would mean cutting brigades at local Army bases that will hurt local economies.
Lawmakers have been particularly concerned by cuts to National Guard brigades, which are currently at 28, but could also shrink further.
"Reductions will impact the entire force and result in less brigades," Campbell said.
He added there could be some “multi-component” brigade combat teams, consisting of active soldiers and Guardsmen.
“We might have to take some Guard and put them with active, and take some active and put them with Guard,” he said.
Army officials are working internally with some possible numbers, but are not discussing them publicly in order to give top Army and Pentagon officials time to consider the cuts.
“Once you start down that road, it’s hard to reverse that,” Campbell said.
Army leaders hope that lawmakers can reverse deep defense cuts known as the sequester by 2016. Sequestration doubled planned cuts of $500 billion to the Defense Department budget through 2023.
Campbell said the Army may also have to cut more combat aviation brigades, which are already scheduled to go down to 11 by 2015.
Although troops are drawing down out of Afghanistan, the demand for soldiers around the world is going up, Campbell said.
“To tell you the truth, as we’re coming down in Afghanistan, the demand for the Army around the world continues to go up,” he said.