Hagel’s visit highlights defense budget’s uncertainty

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel talks about ‘tough’ choices.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel talks about ‘tough’ choices.

As the U.S. Army prepares to cut 80,000 military members — a 14 percent reduction in active-duty personnel — Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel came to Fort Carson last week and assured soldiers that the cuts are an opportunity for a more nimble fighting force.

Fort Carson will lose the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, part of the 4th Infantry Division. Currently, 3,750 soldiers are part of the 3rd BCT, and all but 750 of them will be absorbed for Fort Carson’s remaining three brigade combat teams. The Army plans to add engineers, field artillery and additional support to each brigade as well.

“We’re going to prioritize needs based on mission and threats,” Hagel said. “It’s the smart thing to do — provide agility and flexibility. This is the time to address those changes, to use the opportunity and to make choices.”

The Army isn’t going to choose between manpower and modernization, Hagel said to the Fort Carson audience. Instead, the Pentagon is looking at new ways to create a flexible fighting force.

“Even if we are not forced by budgets, this is the smart thing to do,” Hagel told the troops, who were looking for reassurance about the cost of budget cuts to both manpower and equipment. “We’re winding down from the longest war in our history — Afghanistan — and it’s a good time to review what we’re doing, and what we can do differently.”

Hagel acknowledged that threats remain, and that the United States must be prepared to meet those threats. It’s the soldiers’ job to make sure that the nation remains on alert.

“This is up to you,” the former U.S. senator told them. “It’s your job to prepare the next PFC to instruct them to give them the skills to deal with the new threats.”

Hagel confirmed Fort Carson as one of the posts that eventually will realize troop increases from restructuring.

“We had to restructure, by law,” he told about 100 soldiers gathered to ask questions. “The Army decided to deactivate 12 brigades. That decision affects this base. But in the long run, this base’s manpower will increase as adjustments are made.”

According to figures from the Department of the Army, Fort Carson will see a net gain of about 1,800 soldiers in the next five to seven years. Some of those are soldiers already planned for the Mountain Post and some will be additions from restructuring.

After restructuring, the Army will have 12 armored BCTs, 14 infantry BCTs and seven Stryker BCTs.

But Hagel glossed over the ambiguity that is clouding the Department of Defense’s future — and the future jobs of thousands of soldiers. The next round of reductions, some officials say, could include both active duty and reservists.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has said that the restructuring was done separate from the Budget Control Act, which forces the DoD to cut trillions from its budget during the next decade. Odierno said that more cuts could come if sequestration continues past the next fiscal year.

The military hopes that sequestration’s worst effects could be over by 2014. But if it continues, the Army might have to reduce active and reserve forces by another 100,000, Odierno said publicly last week. Those cuts might certainly hit Fort Carson, as well as Air Force posts at Schriever and Peterson Air Force bases.

Currently, though, both Hagel and Odierno say they hope the cuts in personnel will be achieved through voluntary separations and retirements.

Carson still has to weather the temporary furloughs for its 5,000 civilian workers, who have to take 11 days off without pay through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. The furloughs represent a 20 percent cut in weekly pay for 11 weeks, and area retailers could see a temporary hit to their bottom line as families tighten their spending.

But maybe not, says Fred Crowley, economist at UCCS.

“It’s really hard to know what the overall effects of sequestration might be on the economy,” Crowley said in an earlier interview with the CSBJ. “But there’s a theory in economics — people only change their spending habits when they know a change of income is permanent. Since this isn’t permanent, it isn’t likely to change many habits.”

The furlough decision wasn’t made easily, Hagel told the assembled soldiers.

“It was a tough choice,” he said. “But the decision had to be made. It was difficult, difficult for all of us. I want to be honest about it. Furloughs are a tough thing, for anybody for any reason. We have to comply with the law, and we had to do it without hurting the military’s combat power.”

Hagel pointed to other actions from sequestration: “We’re not sailing as many ships and we’re not adding new Army training.”

Still, the military managed to find ways to keep people working longer than originally planned.

“We started with 22 days of furloughs,” he said. “And I thought we could do better. We brought it down to 11 days.”

Despite the uncertainty surrounding defense budgets, Hagel said training should not suffer.

“We have to stay on the cutting edge of modernization,” he said.

“And to do that, we need both training and soldiers. We can’t choose one or the other.”