WASHINGTON - The Army plans to slash the number of combat brigades from 45 to as low as 32 in a broad restructuring of its fighting force aimed at cutting costs and reducing the service by about 80,000 soldiers, according to U.S. officials familiar with the plans.
The Associated Press reports officials said the sweeping changes will likely increase the size of each combat brigade - generally by adding another battalion - in an effort to ensure the remaining brigades have the fighting capabilities they need when they go to war. A brigade is usually about 3,500 soldiers, but can be as large as 5,000 for the heavily armored units. A battalion is usually 600 to 800 soldiers.
Reducing the overall number of brigades will also eliminate the need for the headquarters units that command and oversee them.
Army officials said specialty units, such as Army special operations forces, would not be affected by the cuts.
The cuts come as the Pentagon puts the finishing touches on its 2013 fiscal year budget, which must reflect about $260 billion in savings in its five-year plan. Congress has ordered the Defense Department to come up with a total of $487 billion in the next 10 years, and could face cuts of double that amount if Congress can't reach an agreement to avoid automatic across-the-board reductions mandated by lawmakers last year.
Military leaders, from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on down, insist they will come up with the budget cuts without hurting the forces' effectiveness.
According to officials, plans call for the active duty Army to shrink from a high of about 570,000 soldiers to roughly 490,000 in the next decade or so. Initial cuts have been ongoing, and there are currently about 558,000 active duty soldiers in the Army.
Additionally, there are nearly 205,000 in the Army Reserve and close to 360,000 in the Army National Guard, the Army said Wednesday.
The Army plans to shed soldiers carefully, including through planned departures, separations for medical or behavioral problems, and by scaling back the number of people promoted or allowed to enlist and re-enlist.
One priority would be to make sure that the Army retains its mid-level officers, who routinely take up to 10 years to get to the rank of major or higher.