March 5 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel got a taste of the budget fights he will face this year as senators protested his proposals to cut the Army’s size, reduce benefits for troops and retire the A-10 attack plane.
A day after submitting a $496 billion defense budget for the coming fiscal year that abides by spending caps set by Congress, Hagel fielded complaints today from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that he would cut the military too deeply at a time of rising threats.
“The proposal before us makes reductions in force structure and compensation that will be difficult for many to support,” Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the committee’s Democratic chairman, said at a hearing in Washington. Spending caps mandated by law “seriously challenge our ability to meet our national security needs,” he said.
Senator Kay Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat, said she’s troubled by proposals to limit soldiers’ pay raises, boost their health-insurance fees and increase the cost of groceries at military commissaries by cutting back Defense Department subsidies for the stores on bases.
“While I understand the significant fiscal challenges that the department faces, we just can’t seek to balance the budget on the backs of our service members,” Hagan said.
Underscoring the opposition, Senators Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, and Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, introduced a bill that would prohibit the Pentagon from cutting the annual subsidy by $1 billion.
Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who testified alongside Hagel, said personnel costs eat up as much as half of the Pentagon’s budget and must be contained. The proposals in the budget are “a reasonable approach to getting pay compensation and health care back in balance,” Dempsey said.
Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, pressed Hagel and Dempsey to reconsider their plan to retire all of the A-10 planes, known as Warthogs, which are used to provide close-air support to troops on the ground.
“When we hear Air Force officials, and I’ve heard similar concerns from those on the ground, that lives will be at stake, why aren’t we preserving that priority over other priorities?” Ayotte said. Her husband flew the A-10 on combat missions during the Iraq war.
Dempsey said the Air Force can use other planes, such as the F-15 and F-16, to provide close-air support. Ayotte said the military would face a gap in close-air support because the A-10 will be retired before Lockheed Martin Corp.’s new F-35 fighters will be fully operational.
Cruz on Army
Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, said he objected to Hagel’s plan to reduce the size of the Army, which would be cut to about 450,000 by 2019 from about 522,000 today.
“It seems to me there are a great many other areas in the Pentagon budget that ought to be much higher candidates for cuts than reducing the men and women who are directly on the front lines, who go directly to our war-fighting capacity,” Cruz said.
Hagel said he sought to balance funding needs for modernization and training against the costs of supporting a larger force. Hagel and Dempsey will testify again tomorrow before the House Armed Services Committee.
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