Downsizing Army may lay off veteran soldiers. Is that a breach of trust?

Thomas Lamont, the assistant secretary of the Army, told lawmakers that the Army may have to lay off as many as 30,000 soldiers in its attempt to trim its ranks and meet budget cuts.

Ted S. Warren/AP/File
Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick speaks at a field hearing of the US Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee in Tacoma, Wash., earlier this month. He has acknowledged that Army budget cuts could resolve in some layoffs.

As many as 30,000 soldiers could be laid off in the next five years amid the Army’s efforts to trim its ranks by nearly 90,000 personnel, a plan that is generating criticism from lawmakers who accuse the Pentagon of “breaking trust” with troops who have been repeatedly deployed during a decade of war.

Thomas Lamont, the assistant secretary of the Army, seemed sheepish in detailing the figures.

“I hate to throw out numbers,” he told a Senate Armed Services Committee panel Wednesday. “Again, these are very rough numbers and all based on assumptions and attrition rates.”

Defense officials say that they are reluctant to make such personnel cuts, but they are also facing nearly $500 billion in mandated budget cuts over the next decade. They say they hope that much of the reductions can come through attrition of forces.

That said, there may have to be “involuntary separations” for some service members who will be forced to leave in what Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, an Army deputy chief of staff, deemed “other than natural causes.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that the Pentagon could potentially save some $150 billion over 10 years by shrinking the Army from 570,000 personnel currently to 483,000.

In doing this, however, the Army must move forward “smartly and compassionately,” Mr. Lamont told the lawmakers, particularly during a time of fiscal crisis and unemployment for so many Americans. Some soldiers who are forced out of the active duty may join the National Guard or Reserves. Though these two branches currently comprise 51 percent of the Army’s total forces, they consume only about 16 percent of the service’s base budget.

Critics point out, however, that amid plans to cut troops from the roles of the military, Pentagon officials declined to save money by retiring any of its 11 aircraft carriers, for example, or eliminate other weapons that have been found to be expensive and yet underperforming.

For this, Pentagon officials have come under fire from lawmakers, who accuse them of “breaking trust” with the ranks of soldiers. Defense officials counter that the country is not likely to launch into another troop-intensive counterinsurgency campaign – the sort of wars it has been waging in Iraq and Afghanistan – again anytime soon.

And even with the reductions, the end strength of the active duty Army will still be greater – though not by much – than it was before the 9/11 attacks, when it was just over 482,000 troops.

Even so, “Telling a well-performing combat veteran just back from war that he is getting kicked out of the Army would represent a breach of faith between our country and those who have deployed to keep us safe,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire, in a statement. “I worry about the demoralizing effect [that] giving pink slips to our war-fighters could have throughout the entire all-volunteer force.”

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