WASHINGTON — Army Secretary John M. McHugh tried to reassure senators Wednesday that the Army's plan to cut as many as 40,000 troops from current levels by 2015 will not scuttle his plans to give soldiers more time at home between deployments.
"We can take that force reduction in stride," Mr. McHugh told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on defense, which called the secretary and the new Army chief of staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, for a hearing on the Army's proposed fiscal 2012 budget.
The Army actually proposes two reductions: the first will erase the temporary increase of 22,000 that the Obama administration put into place for the Afghanistan "surge," and an additional 27,000 will come out of Army end strength following the Afghanistan drawdown, expected to be completed in 2014.
"We feel very confident that the 27,000 is a very reasonable target," Mr. McHugh told the panel's chairman, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii.
Gen. Dempsey added, "I think it's a reasonable plan."
But the second reduction has set off criticism and skepticism on Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers say they worry that such a sharp trim could leave the Army less ready for future conflicts and wreck a long-promised plan to give soldiers at least two years at home for every year deployed.
Soldiers now receive slightly more than a year and a half at home for each yearlong deployment, Mr. McHugh said, but he added that a few years ago, soldiers were at home less than a year.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., questioned whether the Army could be prepared for the unexpected and whether the force could become less resilient if officials do not keep it at a sufficient size.
Mr. McHugh stressed that the proposed second reduction, which requires legislation, could be reversed depending on conditions in Afghanistan. "If conditions change, we'll have to re-evaluate," he said.
To that, Mrs. Mikulski answered, "But conditions are changing."
She said she believes lawmakers and defense officials need to continue talking about the issue because soldiers, unlike weapons or equipment, cannot simply be "pulled off the shelf" and ordered quickly and made available. Recruiting the force takes years.
"We've already pulled them off the shelf for nine years," Mrs. Mikulski said, referring to the heavy use of reserve forces and increased demands on the active force for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When she appeared to be coming down hard on Mr. McHugh, the former north country congressman, Mrs. Mikulski quickly added that she considers him an "outstanding public servant" and a "man of honor."
Mr. McHugh also took some heat on the Army's canceled systems, such as the Comanche helicopter and the Future Combat Systems. Those canceled programs have cost taxpayers $100 billion, and an Army panel has recommended greatly reducing the number of system requirements the service puts on contractors.
Out of 76 recommendations from the panel, Mr. McHugh said, the Army is adopting all but 13 — and those 13 are under review.
"We view that study as long overdue," Mr. McHugh said. "We're trying to do a better job in stating the requirements."
In the latest example, the Army pulled back from a proposed ground combat vehicle, canceled a request for proposals and revised the program to greatly cut the number of requirements on the contractor. The vehicle, once designed, will be as lethal as a tank but have more mobility and versatility on the battlefield.
"I think the ground combat vehicle is a good example of how we're doing better," Mr. McHugh said.