Pentagon leaders unveiled on Wednesday the findings of their multi-month review of the potential impacts of sequestration budget cuts, offering competing plans for cutting either troops or high-end equipment.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the Strategic Choices and Management Review shortly after the $500 billion in decade-long “sequestration” budget cuts started March 1 (Defense Daily, March 19).

PentagonHagel told reporters Wednesday at the Pentagon that the review did not yield a “detailed budget blueprint,” but instead spurred “a menu of options” built around three budget scenarios. That trio of options includes one with the sequestration cuts added to Obama’s current defense budget, a scenario that would cut another $52 billion in fiscal year 2014 alone from the administration’s proposal, as well as an “in-between” option that would reduce defense spending by “about $250 billion” over the next 10 years but be “largely back-loaded,” Hagel said. The third option is President Barack Obama’s proposed defense budget, which calls for a $515.9 billion base budget in fiscal year 2014. Obama’s plan replaces the $500 billion in longterm sequestration cuts with $150 billion in future cuts through a plan Republicans have rejected.

The strategic-choices review was led by Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter with the “full participation”–as Hagel put it–of  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, Vice Chairman Adm. James Winnefeld, and the military service leaders. The review includes “packages of options” that include changes to force structure and modernization plans, management efficiencies and overhead reductions, and compensation reforms, Hagel said.

The review, notably, yielded two competing options for changing current force structure and modernization plans if sequestration persists. One approach would “trade away size for high-end capability,” while the other would “trade away high-end capability for size,” Hagel said.

“The basic trade-off is between capacity–measured in the number of Army brigades, Navy ships, Air Force squadrons and Marine battalions–and capability–our ability to modernize weapons systems to maintain our military’s technological edge,” he said during a Pentagon press conference.

The first option would shrink the active Army to as few as 380,000 soldiers, draw down the Marine Corps to a low of 150,000 troops, reduce the number of carrier strike groups to as few as of eight, and retire older Air Force bombers. It would protect equipment intended to counter anti-access and area-denial threats, Hagel said. That includes investment in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and long-range-strike family of systems, as well as upgrades to submarine cruise missiles and support for cyber and special-operations capabilities.

“This strategic choice would result in a force that would be technologically dominant, but would be much smaller and able to go fewer places and do fewer things, especially if crises occurred at the same time in different regions of the world,” Hagel said.

The alternate approach–to choose more troops over high-end capabilities–would lead officials to “cancel or curtail many modernization programs, slow the growth of cyber enhancements, and reduce special operations forces,” Hagel said. The Pentagon would try to keep its capacity for regional power projection and presence, he added, but making “more-limited cuts” to ground forces, ships, and aircraft.

The cuts under this option, Hagel told reporters, would effectively result in a “decade-long modernization holiday.”

“The military could find its equipment and weapons systems, many of which are already near the end of their service lives, less effective against more technologically advanced adversaries,” he said. “We also have to consider how massive cuts to procurement, and research and development funding would impact the viability of America’s private sector industrial base.”

Hagel said these two competing approaches–to protect troops levels or high-end equipment—will be weighed by the Pentagon and White House in the coming months as officials grapple with the looming threat of continued sequestration cuts.

“I have not made any program or force structure decisions, and more analysis will be required before these decisions are made,” he said.

Winnefeld, sitting alongside Hagel at the Pentagon, told reporters that officials don’t expect just one of those two options to prevail under sequestration, which resulted from the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA).

“It’s not all capability or all capacity…(and) if we have to go that way, (of) full BCA cuts, it’s going to be something in the middle, we know that,” the Navy admiral said. “The real question is (if) either of those scenarios gets us into what was described as break.”

The term “break,” Winnefeld said, describes a scenario where the Pentagon would either struggle to or fail to do certain things in its strategy because of budget limitations.

When weighing force structure and modernization cuts, Hagel said, officials conducting the strategic-choices review aimed to “preserve the tenets” of the defense strategic guidance President Barack Obama released in January 2012. That means shielding plans for “strategic deterrence, homeland defense, and the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific,” he said.

For management efficiencies and overhead reductions, the Pentagon’s strategic-choices review found that if sequestration continues actions including “consolidations of regional combatant commands, defense agency mission cuts, and further IT consolidation” could be needed.

Hagel said the review found the Pentagon could sustain its current defense strategy under Obama’s budget. Yet it found the “in-between” scenario–to reduce defense spending by roughly $250 billion over the next 10 years–would “bend our defense strategy in important ways,” he said. And the review concluded that budgeting for continued sequestration would “break some parts of the strategy no matter how the cuts were made,” he said.

The review also concluded that budget reductions to current plans should not be made proportionally across the military services, but should be “informed by strategy,” Hagel said. The military services will build two sets of budgets for FY ’15 through FY ’19, he said, one at the level of Obama’s current budget and the other within sequestration limits.

As the Oct. 1 start of FY ’14 nears, Hagel said the Pentagon is developing a contingency plan for cutting $52 billion in sequestration cuts, if lawmakers don’t agree on a plan to stop them.

“Congress will need to help us manage these deep and abrupt reductions responsibly and efficiently,” the defense secretary said. “The bold management reforms, compensation changes, and force-structure reductions identified by the Strategic Choices and Management Review can help reduce the damage that would be caused by the persistence of sequestration in Fiscal Year 2014, but they won’t come close to avoiding it altogether.”

He noted how the review found the only way to make the cuts “strategically” is to make them “backloaded,” or more heavily weighted toward future years.

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) will hold a hearing Thursday on the strategic-choices review.

HASC Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) said Wednesday he is concerned that the “short-term” Strategic Choices and Management Review will been seen by some people “a substitute for real strategic planning.”

“Indeed, the president directed the Department to maintain his 2012 defense strategy, even though his senior commanders have testified that the strategy would have to be revised in the face of additional budget cuts,” McKeon said in a statement. He charged the report is “entirely budget driven, deferring any further consideration of strategy to the Quadrennial Defense Review, which has yet to get under way.”  

McKeon said the Pentagon review confirms what he has warned of: “further cuts will cause catastrophic readiness shortfalls, we will lose our workforce and ability to recruit and retain the all volunteer force, and our influence around the world will continue to diminish.”