US Army to Drop at Least 13 Brigades by 2017

As the U.S. military begins to grapple with mandated budget cuts, we are beginning to see some of the results. Troop reductions are one of the quickest ways in which the military intends to reduce its costs. Because cutting the budget is a process, we are likely to see a lot of give and take as military leaders work with lawmakers over the next five years.

DoD photo of Army soldiers by Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon, U.S. Air Force. (Released)

The U.S. Army plans to eliminate at least a dozen brigades over the next five years in what has been described as the largest restructuring of the force since World War II. The Army will reduce the number of brigade combat teams from 45 to 33, a targeted reduction of 80,000 soldiers (to 490,000 soldiers) by 2017, according to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno.

Army Working to Preserve Combat Readiness

The Army is also reorganizing the makeup of the brigade combat teams to retain as much combat potential as possible despite the reductions, Odierno added. The service will add a third maneuver battalion – and additional fires and engineering potential to each armor and infantry brigade combat teams to make them more lethal, more flexible and more agile. According to Odierno, the Army will also keep investing in aviation, special operations, missile defense, and cyber security

A brigade is an imprecise troop count of between 3,000 to 5,000 solders. A brigade headquarters commands the tactical operation of two to five attached combat battalions. Normally commanded by a colonel with a command sergeant major as senior NCO, brigades are employed on independent or semi-independent operations.

Congressman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee that has oversight in this area, does not paint a rosy picture going forward. “As damaging as they are, these cuts don’t begin to reflect the crippling damage sequestration will do to our armed forces and national security,” McKeon said in an e-mailed statement after the Army’s announcement. “This is only the tip of the iceberg. Much deeper cuts are still to come.”

At least 10 stateside installations (from all over the US) will lose a brigade each and two German bases are being inactivated, one from Baumholder and another from Grafenwoehr.

The reduction represents about a 14 percent drop in force size. General Odierno said the force would eventually drop to 32 brigades, but a decision had not yet been made on the final unit to be cut. He said as the 13 brigades are inactivated, some of the forces would be transferred to other brigades to make them “more lethal, more flexible and more agile.”

The Army hopes to absorb some of the effect of the cuts to troop strength with increased firepower and technological advancements. Battalions of infantry, Stryker combat vehicles, engineering and artillery units would be shifted to other brigades along with engineering and artillery units, according to Odieraid.

The cuts mainly affect the active-duty force. The Army Reserve will remain at 205,000 soldiers and the state-based National Guard militia will lose 8,000 soldiers, dropping to 350,000 from 358,000. However, depending on how Congress deals with the mandated budget cuts, the military may have to shed another 100,000 soldiers from the National Guard and Army Reserve. The first installment of across-the-board reductions took effect in March of this year.


Sequestration and the Changing Military

The Defense Department is slated to trim almost $500 billion in spending in the next decade. Depending on how Congress and the White House interact, our military may be required to make additional cuts of that much more. It is early to assess how spending cuts are going to affect the U.S. military in the long run.

It may also be early to say how the cuts will affect the overall U.S. economy. Defense makes up 4.2% of GDP now and projected to fall to about 3.1% in 2015. That’s about where Pentagon spending was for a few years before the 2001 terrorist attacks. Geographically, those areas most heavily saturated Defense suppliers are going to feel these cuts the deepest.

Then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned sequestration’s mandated cuts would be “devastating” to the military. If you have not read Panetta’s letter to Senator McCain (Ranking Member of the Committee on Armed Services), you should do so.

Current Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is downplaying the effects of sequestration. While acknowledging there will be pain, Hagel expressed optimism that the White House and Congress would come to agreements that would head off the most serious consequences. It remains to be seen what sort of compromise the two political parties can work out.

Here are some examples of how the military is currently changing because of sequestration and because of the pressures being exerted to reduce the federal deficit:

  • Cuts in the civilian workforce. Notices go out later this month for thousands of civilian furloughs, reducing pay by 20 percent. Hagel announced steps have already been  taken including a hiring freeze, terminating or laying off some contract employees, and cutbacks in maintenance.
  • Declining troop levels. Expect a troop-level reduction of  150,000, mostly from the Army and Marines. Military pay scale should not be affected, but expect reductions for health care coverage and pension changes. For example, more years of service will likely be required to qualify for full retirement benefits.
  • Reduction in Air Force and Navy aircraft. Not only are there going to be fewer new aircraft produced, the procurement of next generation aircraft is getting a long and hard look. The Air Force is set to trim five A-10 tactical squadrons and two other squadrons as well (a National Guard F-16 unit and an F-15 training squadron). There will be fewer aircraft training missions and patrols. The C-27J cargo plane is being discussed as a program on the chopping block.
  • Increased use of drones. This strategy is designed to reduce wear and tear on aircraft and to reduce the number of aircraft needed. Some defense experts estimate that within a decade unmanned aircraft will make up more than half of the U.S. air arsenal.
  • Fewer overseas bases. To deal with China, some facilities will be shifted from Europe to southern Asia. More and more, Europe will be left to take care of itself except in times of deep crisis. There will be a reduced U.S. presence in Western Europe.
  • Fewer ships in the Navy and the Coast Guard. Not only are the number of ships to be reduced, but the frequency and duration of patrols and missions could be dramatically reduced as well. Reduction doesn’t mean absence of funding—the U.S. Navy recently ordered four new littoral combat ships as part of their 2013 budget.
  • Reductions in all Defense procurement, estimated at $30 billion from the current annual $120 billion. Defense contractors are likely to find offsets by getting bigger orders from allied countries. Saudi Arabia and India are identified among the biggest customers. Contractors will tighten their belts a bit. The industry will likely experience some layoffs.

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Obama Weighing Options for Military Cuts

US Military SpendingOne thing is certain: in the climate of sequestration politics the Obama administration has an opening to argue for deep reductions in programs that Congress has resisted. The Pentagon faces $46 billion in required cuts and some $500 billion over the next decade.

Here are some of the most severe cuts being talked about:

  • Troop reductions.
  • Base closings
  • Reduction in deployed nuclear weapons and stockpiles.
  • Scaling procurement of next-generation aircraft, starting with the F-35 (the most expensive weapons program in U.S. history).
  • Restructuring of the military medical insurance program (costs exceed all expenditures on US diplomacy and foreign aid around the world).

Some senior officers are saying that the actual reductions could far surpass those mandated by sequestration. Their feeling is that this administration might end up with the final word on where to spend Defense dollars. President Obama’s stated priorities include building drones, developing offensive and defensive cyberweapons, and focusing on Special Operations forces.

Gordon Adams, a former senior budget official in the Clinton administration who is now at the Stimson Center (Defense issues) said, “Sequester is an ugly experience, but it could grow up to be a budget discipline swan. It could provide the planning discipline the services…have been missing since 2001.”

To add perspective, military spending is currently at an all-time high (in dollar terms). It’s budget in the last decade nearly doubled, to $711 billion, representing about 4.7% of the GDP (see chart). In Defense spending, the US currently outspends China (the next highest Defense spender) by roughly 6-to-1; the U.S. yearly Defense budget is greater than that of the combined next 13 countries.

Immediate budget benefits can be had by reducing the size of active-duty forces. Other options, like cutting new weapons systems and bases and reducing health care costs, will save down the road but show little in the short term.

President Obama is sitting on a proposal already agreed to by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that could trim America’s active nuclear arsenal by almost a third (and includes big reductions in stockpiled nuclear weapons). The administration wants to negotiate similar cuts with President Putin of Russia, which is unlikely according to senior military officials.

The embattled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is the largest single line item in the Pentagon’s budget. The F-35 a new jet for the Navy, the Air Force and the Marines,. As much as $84 billion has already been spent, but the estimates of final production costs are pushing toward $400 billion.

The program was wildly mismanaged during the Bush administration. Lockheed-Martin is the manufacturer. It has struggled to make the huge changes demanded by each of the services. Meanwhile, the cost of each aircraft has risen to over $1 billion. Senator John McCain of Arizona has been one of a chorus of critics on the F-35 program. “The Joint Strike Fighter program has been both a scandal and a tragedy,” he said in December 2011.

With so many questions—and so many military programs—up in the air, Administration officials say that Ashton B. Carter, the deputy defense secretary, will convene a panel of experts to conduct thorough review of U.S military strategy with the plan to fit the new budget constraints.

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