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Big budget cuts pose 'tough, tough choices' for Pentagon: Hagel

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel makes remarks to the press on looming budget cuts at the Pentagon, Arlington, Virginia, February 24, 2
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel makes remarks to the press on looming budget cuts at the Pentagon, Arlington, Virginia, February 24, 2

By David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned on Thursday that "tough, tough choices are coming" if the Pentagon implements deep future spending cuts required by law, including whether to slash the Army to 420,000 soldiers and decommission an aircraft carrier.

Hagel told a House of Representatives committee that a return to steep budget cuts in 2016 and beyond would force the Army to cut 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers more than currently planned and the Marine Corps to trim another 7,000 troops.

The cuts would "compromise our national security," the Pentagon chief told the House Armed Services Committee. "The result would be a military that could not fulfill its defense strategy, putting at risk America's traditional role as a guarantor of global security and ultimately our own security."

"This is not the military the president nor I want. It isn't the military that this committee or this Congress wants for America's future. But it is the path we're on unless Congress does something to change the law," Hagel told the panel.

Lawmakers who have been struggling with the issue for more than three years held out little hope of any change that would ease the demand to cut defense spending.

Representative Buck McKeon, the committee's Republican chairman, said the Pentagon's plans to seek billions of dollars in additional defense funding between 2015 and 2019 were "in the realm of 'it would be wonderful, but it's not going to happen.'"

"I don't see any way that it's (the budget cut) is going away right now," McKeon said. "It's the law, and we're stuck with it," he added.

The exchange came as Hagel and Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefed the committee on the Pentagon's $496 billion base budget request for the 2015 fiscal year beginning in October.

The 2015 spending plan calls for the Army to shrink to between 440,000 and 450,000 soldiers, the smallest number of troops since before the Second World War. The Army currently has about 520,000 soldiers and had been in the process of slimming to 490,000 under previous plans.

The 2015 budget also envisions cutting the Marine Corps to 182,000, down from the current 190,000, eliminating the entire fleet of A-10 "Warthog" tank-killer aircraft, and slowing the rate of growth of military compensation.

The defense secretary noted that the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review, which was released on Tuesday with the budget, had laid out more steps the department would have to take if it is forced to make even deeper cuts required by law between 2016 and 2019.

Under that scenario, Hagel said, the Army would have to slim down to 420,000 and the Marine Corp would fall to 175,000.

The Navy would have to consider decommissioning an aircraft carrier and its air wing, and cutting several vessels from its shipbuilding plan, including a nuclear submarine, three destroyers, three logistics ships and a forward staging base.

The Air Force would have to retire 80 more aircraft, including the entire KC-10 tanker fleet and a class of Global Hawk surveillance drone. It also would have to slow the purchase of its new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, buying 24 fewer planes over the 2014-2019 period.

"Tough, tough choices are coming here," Hagel told the panel. "You're going to have to help us make them. There isn't any way around it."

Hagel said while the department was planning for deeper cuts outlined in the 2011 Budget Control Act, it was asking Congress to approve an alternative proposed by the president that would give it $115 billion more over the 2016-2019 time frame.

He said the Pentagon's 2105 spending request also sought an additional $26 billion above the $496 billion base budget to help alleviate some of the stress from the cuts, to be paid for by closing tax loopholes and making alternative cost reductions.

(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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