WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawmakers on Wednesday sharply criticized long-announced U.S. Army plans to cut nearly 60,000 soldiers and civilian personnel due to tight budgets, warning it was risky and short-sighted at a time of Middle East conflict and rising tensions with Russia.
Senator John McCain, the Republican head of the Armed Services Committee, called the decision to cut 40,000 soldiers and 17,000 civilian personnel “another dangerous consequence of budget-driven strategy” pursued by President Barack Obama.
Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush told veterans in Hudson, New Hampshire, that the United States “can’t lead without a strong military” and pursuit of the planned cuts would leave the country with “the smallest Army that we’ve had since the start of World War Two.”
The cuts would reduce the active-duty Army from about 490,000 soldiers to about 450,000. The Army had about 490,000 soldiers before the 2001 attacks, a number that rose to about 570,000 in 2010 before reductions began.
The criticism arose as Army Secretary John McHugh began notifying members of Congress about military units that would be reduced and how states would be affected. The Army plans to present fuller details of the reductions on Thursday, but USA Today published the names of some of the affected units on Tuesday.
The hardest hit bases include Fort Benning, Georgia, and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Army officials planned to convert a 4,000-member brigade combat team at each base into a 1,050-member battalion task force, a loss of nearly 3,000 soldiers apiece, according to an Army document seen by Reuters.
Senator Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, said he learned from McHugh that the Army planned to cut 4,350 soldiers in Georgia including 950 at Fort Stewart and 3,400 at Fort Benning. He said the cuts would take place by the end of 2017.
“I am demanding answers from the Department of Defense on how they are justifying these troop cuts in Georgia,” Isakson said in a statement. “We cannot afford to reduce our military readiness at a time when the threats to our security here at home and throughout the world are growing at an alarming rate.”
The Alaska congressional delegation said McHugh told them the Army planned to cut 2,600 soldiers at Fort Richardson and another 75 at Fort Wainwright. The lawmakers said in a statement the Army also intended to cut soldiers in Hawaii.
Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska called the cuts in her state “devastating” and “short-sighted” given the need for a robust defense in the Arctic as well as potential threats from Russia, China and North Korea.
“This decision was obviously made without a full understanding of the geostrategic importance of Alaska’s troops to our national security,” the state’s other senator, Dan Sullivan, said. “These decisions need to be based on strategy, not on bean-counting.”
The personnel cuts come as the Pentagon is attempting to absorb nearly $1 trillion in reductions to planned defense spending over a decade.
The reduction to 450,000 soldiers was initially announced in February 2014 when then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled the Pentagon’s 2015 budget. The figures were also included in the Quadrennial Defense Review, its four-year planning document.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Toni Reinhold and Leslie Adler