U.S. lawmakers are expressing concern about proposed cuts in weapons spending in President Bush's defense budget for next year. They are also pressing the Bush administration to permanently expand the size of the Army.
At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday, Democrats and Republicans alike took issue with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's announcement this week to postpone until 2006 a decision on whether to make permanent an increase in the size of the Army.
The Army has been allowed to expand temporarily by 30,000, up to a troop level of 512,000, after Congress authorized the increase as a stop-gap measure last year.
Lawmakers note the Army has been under strain because of the continuing deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and say such deployments are wearing down the citizen-soldiers in their states who are serving in the National Guard and the Reserve.
"My concern is that it has been stated that we will have to maintain present force levels in Iraq through 2006," said Arizona Republican Senator John McCain. "With 40 percent of our force being Guard and reservists, most outside experts believe this is an enormous strain on them, and not something we had anticipated as the traditional role of the Guard. I believe that argues very strenuously for increases in end-strength so that we can take up some of that slack."
Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, plans to introduce legislation to increase the Army to 532,000 soldiers.
"What I think we are doing is, not only in terms of the end-strength number but the supplemental budgeting, is essentially avoiding what is to me the reality over several years, that we will need an Army force of at least 512,000, probably more," he noted. "That we should start thinking about it in those terms today, and that we should not continue to sort of try to convince ourselves that Iraq will resolve within a few months and we will be right back down to a level of 492,000."
Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker responded that the immediate priority is to reshape combat brigades to make them easier to deploy quickly, and more lethal, and noted the president's budget plan includes funding to do just that. He sought to avoid the issue of permanently expanding the Army.
"I do not want to make decisions I do not have to make until it is time to make them, that is going to cause me to break the momentum that we have in transforming this army," he said.
The $419 billion dollar budget for the Defense Department is about $20 billion more than the current funding level, and much of the increase is aimed at making the U.S. military more responsive to new threats.
The budget calls for reducing some expensive weapons programs to pay for an increase and reorganization of ground forces and improvements to their equipment. It proposes reducing the numbers of planned new fighter jets and submarines, and decommissioning one of the 12 U.S. aircraft carriers, most likely, the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy.
But many lawmakers are not happy about the cuts in weapons systems, particularly when the United States is fighting a war on terrorism.
The chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Senator John Warner of Virginia, is particularly concerned about the proposal to take the aircraft carrier out of service.
"You can imagine the shock that was received here in the Congress with the arrival of the President's budget where we are departing from that level of carriers that has been sort of the integral building block, not only for the Navy, but for our force structure and our planning for forward deployed operations in the proposed retirement by the President of the United States, the Commander in Chief, of the Kennedy," Mr. Warner added.
Military officials defended the cuts in the face of budget pressures, and said the proposed budget would help the military transform itself to meet the threats of the 21st century.
The defense budget does not cover the costs of military and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The administration is expected to send Congress an $80 billion supplemental to cover those costs in the coming days.