Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday proposed shrinking the U.S. Army to its smallest size in 74 years, closing military bases and making other military-wide savings as part of a broad reshaping after more than a decade of war.
Hagel outlined his vision in a speech at the Pentagon, a week before President Barack Obama is to submit his 2015 budget plan to Congress.
Hagel said that U.S. forces must adjust to the reality of smaller budgets, even as he asserted that the United States faces a more volatile, more unpredictable world that requires a more nimble military.
"We are repositioning to focus on the strategic challenges and opportunities that will define our future: new technologies, new centres of power and a world that is growing more volatile, more unpredictable and in some instances more threatening to the United States," he said.
Under the Hagel plan, which Congress could change, the active-duty Army would shrink from its current 522,000 soldiers to between 440,000 and 450,000. That would make it the smallest since just before the U.S. entered World War II.
Hagel said Obama's budget proposal will include a government-wide "Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative" that would provide the Pentagon with $26 billion on top of the $496 billion it is due to receive in 2015 under terms of the budget deal passed by the Congress two months ago.
The U.S. 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.
"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 Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a possible presidential contender in 2016.
At the core of Hagel's 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.