WASHINGTON — Looking beyond America's post-9/11 wars, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday proposed shrinking the Army to its smallest size in 74 years, proposing base closures and reshaping forces to confront a "more volatile, more unpredictable" world with a more nimble military.
The nation can afford a smaller military so long as it retains a technological edge and the agility to respond on short notice to crises anywhere on the globe, Hagel said. He said the priorities he outlined reflect a consensus view among America's military leaders, but Republicans in Congress were quick to criticize some proposed changes.
In a speech at the one-year mark of his tenure as Pentagon chief, Hagel revealed many details of the defense spending plan that will be part of the 2015 budget that President Barack Obama will submit to Congress next week. Hagel described it as the first Pentagon budget to fully reflect the nation's transition from 13 years of war.
At the core of his plan is the notion that after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that proved longer and more costly than foreseen, the U.S. military will no longer be sized to conduct large and protracted ground wars. It will put more emphasis on versatile, agile forces that can project power over great distances, including in Asia.
Hagel stressed that such changes entail risk. He said, "We are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies and in space can no longer be taken for granted."
However, budget constraints demand that spending be managed with an eye to cutting costs across a wide front, including in areas certain to draw opposition in the Congress, he said.
He proposed, for example, a variety of changes in military compensation, including smaller pay raises, a slowdown in the growth of tax-free housing allowances and a requirement that retirees and some families of active-duty service members pay a little more in health insurance deductibles and co-pays.
"Although these recommendations do not cut anyone's pay, I realize they will be controversial," Hagel said, adding that the nation cannot afford the escalating cost of military pay and benefit packages that were enacted during the war years.
Although Congress has agreed on an overall number for the military budget in fiscal 2015 — just under $500 billion — there are still major decisions to be made on how that money should be spent to best protect the nation.
Early reaction from Republicans in Congress was negative.
"I am concerned that we are on a path to repeat the mistakes we've made during past attempts to cash in on expected peace dividends that never materialized," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
"What we're trying to do is solve our financial problems on the backs of our military, and that can't be done," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Another proposal likely to draw fire on Capitol Hill is Hagel's call for a new round of domestic military base closings in 2017.
Among other proposals:
• The active-duty Army would shrink from today's 522,000 soldiers to between 440,000 and 450,000 — the smallest number since 1940 when the nation was gearing up to enter World War II. The Army currently is scheduled to be reduced to 490,000.
• The Army National Guard would drop from 355,000 soldiers to 335,000 by 2017, and the Army Reserve would drop by 10,000, to 195,000. The National Guard also would send its Apache attack helicopters to the active-duty Army in exchange for Black Hawk helicopters more suitable for domestic disaster missions.
• The Marine Corps would shrink from 190,000 to 182,000.
• The Navy would keep its 11 aircraft carriers but "lay up," or temporarily remove from active service, 11 of its 22 cruisers while they are modernized.
• The Air Force would retire its fleet of A-10 "Warthog" tank-killer planes for an estimated savings of $3.5 billion over five years. It also would retire the venerable U-2 spy plane, which debuted early in the Cold War.
Hagel built his case on what he called a foundation of realism. He quoted one of his predecessors, the World War II-era secretary of war, Henry Stimson, as saying Americans must "act in the world as it is, and not in the world as we wish it were."
He and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman who appeared with him, both argued strongly against a return to the across-the-board congressional budget cuts known as sequestration that were partially suspended for the 2014 and 2015 budgets. Hagel likened a return to such cuts to "gambling with our military." Dempsey, too, said those deeper reductions would have exceedingly harmful effects on the entire military.
"We're all willing to take risks," Dempsey said. "None of us are willing to gamble."