By LOLITA C. BALDOR
WASHINGTON - The U.S. Army plans to slash the number of combat brigades from 45 to as low as 32, and broadly restructure its fighting force to save money and cut the size of the service by about 80,000 soldiers, according to U.S. officials familiar with the plans.
Officials said the sweeping changes will likely increase the size of each combat brigade - generally by adding another battalion - in an effort to ensure that those remaining brigades have the fighting capabilities they need when they go to war. A brigade is usually about 3,500 soldiers, but can be as large as 5,000 for the heavily armored units. A battalion is usually between 600-800 soldiers.
Reducing the overall number of brigades will also eliminate the need for the headquarters units that command and oversee them.
Officials acknowledged that merging battalions together into larger brigades could shift some soldiers to different bases across the country, although that effort could be stymied by members of Congress who don't like to see the staffing decline at bases that feed the local economy. Officials said the Army will try to limit such shifts.
The cuts come as the Pentagon puts the finishing touches on its 2013 fiscal year budget, which must reflect about $260 billion in savings in its five-year plan. Congress has ordered the Defense Department to come up with a total of $487 billion over the next 10 years, and could face cuts of double that amount if Congress can't reach an agreement to avoid automatic across-the-board reductions mandated by lawmakers last year.
Officials spoke about the budget plans on condition of anonymity because they have not yet been made public.
The brigade restructuring is aimed at saving money without eroding the military's ability to protect the country and wage war when needed. Army officials argue that while there would be fewer brigades, building them bigger will give them more capabilities and depth, and will reduce stress on the units.
The officials noted that specialty units, such as Army special operations forces, would not be affected by the cuts.
Military leaders, from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on down, insist they will come up with the budgets cuts without hurting the force's effectiveness. In fact, many of the top Army leaders who have been putting the budget together were around when massive budget cuts after the Vietnam war left Army units badly undermanned and ill-equipped - leading to what they call a hollow force.
According to officials, plans call for the active duty Army to shrink from a high of about 570,000 soldiers to roughly 490,000 over the next decade or so. Initial cuts have been ongoing, and there are currently about 558,000 active duty soldiers in the Army.
Additionally, there are nearly 205,000 in the Army Reserve and close to 360,000 in the Army National Guard, the Army said Wednesday.
The Army plans to shed soldiers carefully, including through planned departures, separations for medical or behavioral problems, and by scaling back the number of people promoted or allowed to enlist and re-enlist.
One priority would be to make sure that the Army retains its mid-level officers, who routinely take up to 10 years to get to the rank of major or higher. Army leaders struggled through periods of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, using bonuses and other incentives to retain the mid-level officers they needed to command smaller units on the battlefield.
But Army officials also acknowledge that they will be forced to deny the reenlistment of many qualified soldiers, while also continuing to bring in quality recruits.
Gen. Raymond Odierno, chief of staff of the Army, has warned that cutting brigades was one way to cut the budget. And he said that shrinking the force will mean that the Army will no longer be able to handle two simultaneous conflicts - long a requirement for the U.S. military.
But the new military strategy mapped out by President Barack Obama and his defense team envisions a shift away from the hard-fought ground wars of Iraq and Afghanistan that relied on tens of thousands of troops to battle stubborn terrorists and insurgent groups. The future military, instead, will focus more on Asian security risks such as China and North Korea, and build on partnerships in the Middle East to keep an eye on Iran.
One major reduction, already announced by Panetta, will cut the number of Army brigades stationed in Europe from four to two. Other units would rotate in and out of the region as needed.
Currently there are three brigades in Germany and one in Vincenza, Italy, and that would change so that there would be one in Germany and one in Vincenza.