By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Army on Wednesday defended its decision to notify 87 captains deployed overseas, including 48 in Afghanistan, that they were losing their jobs, would be transferred home and had nine months to organize their departure from the service.
Senior Army officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the officers were among a group of 1,188 captains notified last months that they were being separated from the service as it draws down from the current 513,800 soldiers to 510,000 by the end of the year due to budget cuts.
With the Pentagon under orders to reduce projected spending by nearly $1 trillion over a decade, the cuts to the Army will not stop there. The service expects to cut a further 20,000 troops by the end of 2015, to a total of 490,000, on a trajectory to hit 440,000 to 450,000 by the end of the decade.
"We won't be able to achieve those numbers through natural attrition alone," one of the Army officials said, making it necessary to use other means to reduce the number of personnel.
An Officer Separation Board reviewed personnel records of thousands of captains who entered the service in a given year and ranked them according to performance and job history, the officials said.
The 1,188 at the bottom of the rankings were notified of a decision to separate them from the service. The number was based on the cuts needed to achieve the Army's target size for the future, the officials said.
The service had no choice but to notify those deployed to combat zones such as Afghanistan or potentially hazardous regions such as the Horn of Africa because the law allots a specific amount of time for them to separate from the military once the service secretary accepts the recommendations, the officials said.
"We want to give that officer the max amount of time to ... relocate back to wherever his home station is and ultimately make that decision on what he wants to do following the Army," the official said.
The Army has been roundly criticized by some lawmakers and media over the decision to give so-called pink slips to officers deployed in combat.
The officials said most officers were forewarned they might be on the list because of their service records. None were given slips, but were notified in person and counseled by a general in their chain of command.
The captains losing their jobs will receive some form of separation pay, the officials said. Some are getting full retirement for 20 years of service, while others will receive a slightly smaller early retirement deal for serving 15 years.
Those with fewer years of service are getting a separation payment, which would run $50,000 to $60,000 for a captain with about eight years of service, the officials said.
Enlisted soldiers and officers at other ranks are facing similar job cuts in the coming months.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)