February 24, 2014 at 11:42 pm

Hagel plan would make Army smallest since 1940

Hagel (Susan Walsh / AP)

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, closing bases and reshaping forces to confront a “more volatile, more unpredictable” world with a more nimble military.

The cuts would include grounding the Air Force’s fleet of A-10 “Warthog” tank-killers. That would have a big effect on Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township, which has 24 of the planes. Up to 650 full- and part-time jobs at Selfridge are tied to the A-10s, which are part of the 127th Wing.

The announcement prompted Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, whose district includes the base, and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, on Monday to fight elimination of the aircraft and minimize any impact on Selfridge.

“Those of us who strongly recognize the important role the National Guard plays in defending our nation will not back down in ensuring that role is not diminished,” said Miller, vice chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Levin, chair of the Senate Armed Service Committee, said “the A-10 has a vital capability, and we must ensure that we maintain that capability.”

Under Hagel’s plan, the active-duty Army would shrink from today’s 522,000 soldiers to between 440,000 and 450,000 — the smallest number since it had 267,000 active-duty members in 1940, when the nation was gearing up to enter World War II.

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 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 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 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 the nation cannot afford the escalating cost of military pay and benefit packages that were enacted during the war years.

Congress has agreed on an overall number for the military budget in fiscal 2015 — just under $500 billion — but 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 of Florida, a possible presidential contender in 2016.

Another proposal likely to draw fire on Capitol Hill is Hagel’s call for a new round in 2017 of domestic military base closures, which Selfridge survived previously.

Among other changes Hagel proposed:

■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 would send its Apache attack helicopters to the active-duty Army in exchange for Black Hawk helicopters more suitable for disaster relief 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 also would retire the venerable U-2 spy plane, which debuted early in the Cold War as a stalwart of U.S. intelligence.

If the A-10 is cut, at an estimated savings of $3.5 billion over five years, the question Congress has is what to replace it with and how soon. Hagel wants a move to the F-35, but that plane won’t be ready until the early 2020s.

Congress has repeatedly rebuffed attempts by the Pentagon to reduce the Air National Guard and the A-10 fleet. In 2012, lawmakers rejected plans to move the A-10s out of Michigan to another base. Selfridge’s 127th Wing also flies eight KC-135 Stratotankers, a jet that enables the military to refuel other aircraft in midair.

Detroit News Staff Writers Marisa Schultz, David Shepardson and Charles E. Ramirez contributed.