The Cable

Pentagon Set to Announce Massive Army Cutbacks

After two long land wars, budget pressures are forcing the Army to shrink to levels unseen in decades.

FORT KNOX, KY - NOVEMBER 20:  Soldiers from the U.S. Army's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, stand at attention while being introduced during a homecoming ceremony in the Natcher Physical Fitness Center on Fort Knox in the early morning hours of Wednesday, November 20, 2013 in Fort Knox, Ky. The 250 soldiers returned to Fort Knox after a nine-month combat deployment working alongside Afghan military and police forces in Afghanistan's Zabul Province. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)
FORT KNOX, KY - NOVEMBER 20: Soldiers from the U.S. Army's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, stand at attention while being introduced during a homecoming ceremony in the Natcher Physical Fitness Center on Fort Knox in the early morning hours of Wednesday, November 20, 2013 in Fort Knox, Ky. The 250 soldiers returned to Fort Knox after a nine-month combat deployment working alongside Afghan military and police forces in Afghanistan's Zabul Province. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)

The U.S. Army is planning to cut 40,000 soldiers and 17,000 civilian workers over the next two years as part of a long-anticipated downsizing driven by a squeeze on defense spending — and by the sobering reality that the wars of the future are likely to involve planes and ships, not throngs of combat troops on the ground.

The reductions will shrink the Army to 450,000 troops by October 2017, down from the current level of 490,000, defense officials said.

The Army provided the bulk of the troops in the grinding wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the force rose to a peak of 570,000 in 2012. But the Defense Department is under pressure to contain military spending, and cutting back the largest branch of the armed services offers big savings.

The Army has been struggling to make the case to lawmakers that it needs to retain a large force, but political leaders and strategic planners tend to view high-tech weaponry, drones, and small teams of special operations forces as the keys to future warfare.

The Army will remain the largest of the armed services — but the other branches of the military do not face major manpower reductions. The Air Force has gradually cut back to a force of 313,000 active-duty airmen, the Navy has roughly 325,000 sailors, and the Marine Corps has about 184,000 troops.

The last time the Army imposed involuntary retirement on troops was in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War, as the military cut back a force that had swelled to 780,000 in the late 1980s.

The Pentagon has made clear since February 2014 that the Army would have to come down to about 450,000 soldiers. The only uncertainty has been the pace of the reduction, how many troops would face involuntary retirement, and which units would be deactivated.

But Army officials now have a more detailed proposal on how they will reach the target, which they are due to present publicly Wednesday.

USA Today first reported the outlines of the plan, which would include scaling back the number of troops at bases at home and abroad, including at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska and at Fort Benning in Georgia.

Army leaders have tried to make personnel cuts over the past year by relying on attrition and reduced recruiting, but they had to order some troops to retire as well. That move has stirred resentment and bitterness among soldiers who braved multiple combat tours in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Army chief Gen. Ray Odierno and other top officers have said they can live with the reductions, but have warned that any further troops cuts would have a devastating effect on the Army’s ability to respond to crises.

Under automatic budget cuts that Congress has adopted, the Army could be forced to shed an additional 30,000 troops if lawmakers fail to find a way to scrap the mandatory spending reductions. That would bring the Army down to 420,000 troops, its lowest level since before World War II.

Photo credit: Luke Sharrett/Getty Images

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