House Armed Services Committee members from both parties pushed back Wednesday on the Pentagon's cost-saving plans to reduce the size of the Army and the Marine Corps to make room in tighter-than-projected future budgets for other high-priority investments.
At a hearing with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, committee members raised concerns that unrest in the Middle East and elsewhere would require the military to sustain a larger ground force.
The size of the force is "not something that you can just flip a switch," said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas. "It is the kind of thing that you have to plan ahead for."
Gates tried to assure the panel that the reductions, which would not begin until 2015, will depend on conditions at the time and on the size of the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014.
If the Defense Department's assumptions are wrong or world conditions change for the worse, Gates said, "there's plenty of time to change the size and schedule" of the reduction. He added that the military should know by late 2012 or early 2013 whether its responsibilities in Afghanistan will decrease significantly by 2014.
Gates also cautioned that he does not believe that instability in Egypt and other countries in the Middle East will require more boots on the ground in the region, and most likely will not have an effect on whether the U.S. military can cut the size of its ground forces.
"It is difficult for me to imagine circumstances where we would send U.S. ground forces in any of those situations," Gates said. "Those are problems that are emanating from within those countries, and it's primarily a diplomatic challenge for us."
Starting in four years, Gates wants to reduce the size of the Army by 27,000 troops and the Marine Corps by 15,000 to 20,000 troops - moves that would free up $6 billion in the Pentagon's budget. The Army currently has 547,000 active-duty troops, while the Marine Corps has 202,000.
The measures are part of a larger effort to cut the Pentagon's budget by $78 billion over the next five years, while also finding $100 billion in savings within defense accounts and redirecting those dollars to higher-priority items.
Even with the reductions, Gates stressed that the Army, which has grown significantly in recent years, would still have 40,000 more troops than when he became Defense secretary in late 2006. The Marine Corps, meanwhile, has advocated for the cuts in its size amid concerns that the expeditionary force has become too large and heavy to fulfill its traditional mission, Gates said.
The money freed up by the force cuts would help the military set aside cash for future programs, including a replacement for the Navy's Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine and a new bomber for the Air Force, he said.
"There are some tough choices in terms of big capabilities that are coming down the road," Gates told the lawmakers, adding that cost-saving measures taken now will give the services flexibility down the road.
Gates, who was appearing before the committee to defend the Pentagon's fiscal 2012 budget request, stressed the need for Congress to accept a proposal to rein in TRICARE health care costs, including modest increases in the monthly payments made by working-age retirees. The Pentagon's health care costs have grown from $19 billion in 2001 to $52.5 billion in the fiscal 2012 request. The proposed changes are expected to save $340 million next year and $7.9 billion by 2016.
"The current TRICARE arrangement, one in which fees have not increased for 15 years, is simply not sustainable," Gates argued, noting that he recognized the "vigorous political opposition" lawmakers have had to previous efforts to increase TRICARE co-pays and other fees.
Considering the department's wider budget problem, lawmakers, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., have said they are willing to at least consider fee increases this year.
Gates, who plans to resign from his post later this year, also warned against making deeper cuts to the Pentagon's budget than the department has proposed. Even a 10 percent cut would amount to only $50 billion - an amount that would make little more than a dent in the deficit but could put the country at risk, he said.
"Short-sighted cuts could lead to costlier and more tragic consequences in the future," he warned.
Gates also reiterated his calls for Congress to pass a fiscal 2011 budget, saying that operating under a continuing resolution for the remainder of the fiscal year would amount to a $23 billion cut and would hamstring the military's ability to award contracts for programs not previously in the budget or begin new construction projects.
"The Department of Defense will face a crisis if we end up with a yearlong CR or a significant cut for fiscal year 2011," he said.
The House is currently debating a spending bill that would cut more than $15 billion from the Pentagon's $549 billion request for the current fiscal year. Gates said he needs at least $540 billion for his base budget this year.