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Gates orders drawdown of ground forces

The secretary of Defense calls for the Army and Marines to shrink by as many as 47,000 troops beginning in 2015, the largest such reduction since the Sept. 11 attacks.

January 07, 2011|By David S. Cloud, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Responding to budget pressures from the White House and Congress, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called Thursday for the largest reduction in the size of U.S. ground forces since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Army and Marine Corps would shrink by as many as 47,000 troops starting in 2015, saving $6 billion as part of $78 billion in budget cuts outlined by Gates at a Pentagon news conference. U.S. forces are to be entirely out of Iraq and are hoped to be drawing down in Afghanistan by that time, Gates said.

The Pentagon plans to spend $553 billion in fiscal year 2012, a 3% increase from 2011 levels, and expects 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.

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 need to expand its ranks again, a process that often takes years. Gates and Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they believed the reduction in force was modest and that the risks were acceptable.

The reduction proposal came on the same day that the Pentagon said it was sending more than 1,000 additional Marines to the Helmand province of Afghanistan on a short-term deployment aimed at helping keep pressure on the Taliban in violent areas during the winter.

The troops are part of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which was already in the region aboard the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge, according to a statement issued by U.S. Central Command. The command called the move a "short-term deployment" but did not say how long the troops would remain in Afghanistan.

Gates also announced that he was terminating the Marine Corps expeditionary fighting vehicle and overhauling for the second time development of the F-35 fighter, two troubled defense programs.

The military services had come up with $100 billion in savings over five years that would be redirected within other military programs, Gates said.

He said 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.

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 gain 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 outlining the budget. "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 202,000. The Army is already scheduled to come down to 545,000 by fiscal year 2013, cuts that would bring ground forces roughly back to their levels 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.

Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Thursday that he was "concerned" that the administration proposal calls for an average of "less than 1% real growth" during the next five years.

Gates also called for an increase in insurance premiums for healthcare coverage provided to military families and retirees, a proposal that Congress has rejected in the past.

Marine Commandant Gen. James F. Amos said in a statement that he supported the decision to cancel the expeditionary vehicle and that the service would be looking for cheaper alternatives.

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