To no one’s surprise, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Monday that the U.S. military will undergo even more dramatic cuts in the years to come.  The proposed reductions include:

Shrinking the Army to its smallest size since before World War II.  Under Hagel’s plans, the number of soldiers on active duty would drop from 520,000 today, to between 440-450,000 by 2019.   That’s a net reduction of 15%, and some experts believe the final cuts may be well over 100,000.

– Retiring entire fleets of USAF aircraft, including more than 340 A-10 close air support fighters and 32 U-2 reconnaissance platforms.  The service previously announced plans to get rid of 22,500 airmen this year alone, and elimination of the Warthog and Dragon Lady will permit even more cuts among operations and support personnel in the years to come.

– A reduction of 20,000 soldiers from the National Guard, reducing the number of troops in that component to 335,000.  Another 10,000 troops will exit the Army Reserve, reducing end strength to 195,000.

– Transferring all AH-64 Apache attack currently assigned to the Guard to active-duty units, in exchange for more UH-60 Blackhawks, deemed more “suitable” for disaster relief and other civil support missions.

– Reducing the Marine Corps by 8,000, leaving that service with a total of 182,000 personnel.

– Ending production of the Navy’s troubled littoral combat ship program (LCS) at 32 vessels, rather than the 52 originally planned.

– “Laying up” 11 of the USN’s 22 cruisers while they are modernized.  The move will allow the Navy to keep 11 active carriers.

General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared with Hagel at the announcement and said military leaders are “willing” to accept the proposed cuts over the sequestration process, which would mean even bigger reductions in personnel and hardware.

Describing the Hagel plan as deeply flawed would be an understatement.  For starters, there’s the notion of gutting the Army, which will lose 10 combat brigades and even larger numbers of support troops.  That’s roughly akin to an entire corps, plus all the equipment and personnel who keep the trigger pullers in action. The Army Chief of Staff, General Ray Odierno, has already warned the planned cuts will put his service dangerously close to levels where it cannot fight a major war overseas and sustain other operations (such as training) here at home.

Army commanders are also angry about the retirement of the A-10.  In truth, the USAF has been trying to get rid of the CAS platform for years, but it has never found another fighter that can deliver support to ground forces like the Warthog.  Surviving F-16s and some of the new F-35 stealth fighters are supposed to replace the A-10, but neither aircraft can carry the ordnance–or survive battle damage like the venerable “Hog.”

The U-2 Dragon Lady has been around even longer than the A-10, but it has been constantly updated and still provides an impressive collection capability.  More importantly, the U-2 is much cheaper to operate than its designated replacement the RQ-4, Global Hawk.  Writing recently in Forbes, noted defense analyst Dr. Loren Thompson noted why the venerable Dragon Lady is a better choice than Global Hawk for many missions, including those in the Pacific region:

“For starters, U-2 could fly much higher — at 70,000 feet versus 55,000 feet — which meant sensors carried on the spy plane could see considerably farther. The U-2 could also carry 67% more payload (5,000 pounds versus 3,000 pounds), and had over twice as much space as Global Hawk in which to arrange its mission equipment. In addition, the U-2′s on-board power generation capacity was nearly twice that of Global Hawk, meaning its diverse sensors could be operated simultaneously to collect many types of intelligence
These differences help explain why U-2 has a much higher mission-success rate in the Pacific theater than Global Hawk does — 96% versus 55% — and is selected for missions much more frequently.  When an aircraft operates at 50,000-55,000 feet as Global Hawk does, it can’t fly above some of the storms encountered in the Pacific the way U-2 can. Global Hawk’s weather limitations are compounded by the absence of a de-icing system, which means it cannot fly through clouds for prolonged periods and thus is confined to operating in fair weather — unlike all the manned aircraft in the Air Force fleet.”

Guess we’d better hope that the Chinese and North Koreans restrict their military activities to periods of good weather.  Never mind that the Korean peninsula is subject to frequent rain in the spring and summer, and lots of snow and ice in the winter.  Or that typhoons tend to frequent the western Pacific (including the Taiwan Strait) during the late summer and fall.  But that’s the sort of logic behind the Hagel plan.

Likewise, the idea of idling 11 Ticonderoga-class cruisers sounds like a good idea, since it allows the Navy to keep all of its current carriers.  But the cruisers play an important role in protecting the carriers at sea; with fewer cruisers available, that will mean more deployments for those that remain and for destroyers equipped with the Aegis air defense/battle management system.  More frequent deployments also means more money for maintenance and upkeep.  I’m hardly a math scholar, but I don’t see how mothballing 11 cruisers frees up enough money to support a DDG force that will be more heavily taxed than ever AND keep our carriers in operation.  And if you believe that all of the “laid up” cruisers will eventually return to the fleet, we’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in.

Mr. Hagel’s wishful thinking extends to other areas as well.  The planned down-sizing of the Marine Corps by 8,000 personnel?  The numbers we’ve seen suggest the Corps will absorb much larger cuts, with end strength closer to 150,000 and not 180,000.  Don’t forget: there has been plenty of talk over the past year about the Corps and its “search for a mission” in today’s environment.  If the Marine Corps is becoming strategically irrelevant (as some in the Pentagon would like to believe), then how do you justify the larger force?

There are also planned cuts in pay and benefits too, including virtual elimination of subsidy for military commissaries.  Did we mention that more than 5,000 military families are currently on food stamps, and without the full commissary benefit, they will find it more difficult to feed their spouses and children?  There will also be reductions in the monthly housing allowance for active-duty personnel, and higher fees and co-pays for everyone using the Tricare.

The impact of all of this is easy to predict: military readiness will drop precipitously, at a time when the world is becoming a more dangerous place.  Military members with marketable skills and career options will vote with their feet, taking valuable expertise (and years of experience) with them.  That will leave us with armed forces that are not only lacking equipment and training, but the skilled personnel that form the heart of an all-volunteer military.

Which brings us to Mr. Hagel’s coup de grace, at least on the pay and benefits side.  During yesterday’s speech, he indicated that future decisions on compensation will follow the lead of a Pentagon panel which recommended wholesale changes to the retirement system.  In other words, 20-year retirement (with pension) will soon be a thing of the past, replaced by a new, 401K-type scheme that will cover virtually everyone who serves, but you can’t start collecting until the “normal” retirement age.

As we’ve noted before, the 20-year retirement program has been a foundation of the military recruiting and personnel system for decades.  There are literally thousands of NCOs and officers who joined the armed forces out of high school, with a goal of spending two decades in uniform, in exchange for a retirement check in their late 30s (or early 40s), and the opportunity to launch a second career.

Not only has the 20-year system provided a steady flow of exceptionally-qualified recruits, it has also helped us maintain a youthful force.  As Secretary Hagel may recall from his Vietnam days, you need young men (and women) in their early 20s to do most of the heavy lifting in a military.  The lure of 20-year retirement encourages young Americans to volunteer for those jobs, then move on to other endeavors as they reach middle age.  True, we are living longer as a society and there are many people in their 40s and 50s who are in better shape than youngsters 20 years their junior.  But it’s equally true that you don’t want an infantry company or a Marine platoon with a median age somewhere around 40.

Mr. Hagel maintains that something must be done to reduce personnel costs, which account for roughly half of the Pentagon’s budget.  One option is replacing Tricare with on-base health care for retirees and dependents.  Even routine procedures (such as an appendectomy) may be 10 or 20 times more expensive at a civilian facility, in comparison to a base hospital.  Fully funding military health care and bringing retirees and dependents back on post could generate real savings.

A little perspective is also in order: Hagel and his bean counters rail against the “excessive” cost of military pensions but in reality, that program costs the taxpayers only $4 billion a year, or about 25% of our foreign aid budget.  Fact is: you can’t balance the federal budget on the backs on men and women who served their country faithfully and honorably for more than 20 years, and now expect Uncle Sam to live up to his end of the bargain.  Hacking away at the military (while the big entitlement programs go untouched) is an exercise in fecklessness.  But it’s about what you’d expect from Chuck Hagel and his boss–the same guy who could save us a cool trillion by giving up on his failed vision for national health care.