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Into the Danger Zone: Sequestration and Troop Levels

By Steve Bell, Mark White

Friday, July 10, 2015

The reckless fiscal policy known as sequestration is about to claim another victim.

We at the Bipartisan Policy Center have discussed at length defense spending and the negative impacts of the sequester caps on our country’s ability to adequately meet its national security goals. In 2013, we noted that defense costs continue to rise primarily due to pay and benefit increases for military personnel, and that sequestration was moving our country’s national security policy from merely stupid to dangerous. We have new reason to believe that we are entering the danger zone.

This week, USA TODAY provided an advance report that the Army is indeed intending to continue with its plan to reduce our current troop levels by 40,000 soldiers over the next two years. By the end of Fiscal Year (FY) 2018, the Army will have only 450,000 soldiers, nearly 120,000 fewer than at the peak of our country’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Again, this was not a surprise—the Army has long planned to reduce its troop number in response to the winding down of those overseas operations and outlined these plans in 2014—but these latest reductions are primarily tied to budget constraints rather than rational judgments about security needs. Nearly 17,000 civilian positions will also be eliminated.

Lawmakers and policy experts alike have expressed alarm at these plans. The reductions will place the Army at its lowest staffing point since before World War II, and communities across the country will be impacted by the loss of jobs and support structures around bases like Fort Benning in Georgia and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska.

But the situation could become a great deal worse. Although the president’s FY 2016 budget assumed the 40,000 troop cut and the 17,000 civilian work force reduction, the FY 2016 sequester caps in current law would likely lead to cutting an additional 30,000 troops. The Army could cut elsewhere, but has very limited ability to do so. As Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Daniel Allyn said recently, “These are not cuts the Army wants to make, these are cuts required by [the] budget environment in which we operate.” A further cut from sequestration would put the Army below 450,000 soldiers, a level often described as the lower boundary of necessary personnel.

In addition, during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 7, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey noted that the current global security environment is as “uncertain as I’ve ever seen it.” U.S. involvement with training and preparing local forces to fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) and other threats will require a continued commitment. (Of course, at the same hearing, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter testified that the United States has only trained 60 Syrian rebels to fight back against ISIS. The president’s strategy for only utilizing local “boots on the ground” may prove either too slow or ineffective over the next few years.) If the sequester-level caps take effect, we will have even fewer troops ready to counter this threat. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), in his opening statement, argued that the effect of sequestration could be that the United States will be forced to fight ISIS “literally with one hand tied behind its back.”

Cutting our army personnel to 450,000 is a risky strategy. Allowing sequestration to reduce those levels even further is madness. Given our current security environment and the real threats we face, policymakers must stop flirting with danger and find a way to relax the sequester caps in a fiscally responsible way. Our country’s ability to meet its security needs hangs in the balance.

Jordy Berne and Jillian Zook contributed to this post.

KEYWORDS: 114TH CONGRESS, ASHTON CARTER, ISIS, JACK REED, SENATE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE, SEQUESTER