Tens of thousands of troops could be cut, the Navy could lose 50 ships and the Air Force could be unable to modernize its fleet if the U.S. Congress fails to change the law that will impose huge defense spending reductions in January, top officials said.
“We would absolutely not be able to keep faith with our people. … We’d be breaking contracts and sending people on their way who believe they had a commitment from us to [stay] on active duty,” Gen. Joseph Dunford, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, said at a May 10 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The vice chiefs from all four services testified on readiness levels and disclosed new details about the potential impact of the so-called sequester law, which Congress passed in a bipartisan vote last August.
The law will impose sweeping cuts to the budgets of all federal departments, including the Pentagon, unless Congress agrees on an alternative plan to cut spending.
The cuts are projected to be about 10 percent across the board for all departments. The Pentagon’s share would come on top of the $487 billion in reduced spending over 10 years that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta outlined in February.
Pentagon officials have insisted for months that they are not planning for sequestration, hoping lawmakers will change the law before the trigger date in January. Formal planning may begin this summer if Congress fails to act, Panetta said.
Many experts said an agreement is unlikely before the presidential election in November. That could put off the issue until a postelection “lame duck” session of Congress.
For the Army, “the back-of-the-envelope calculations” would probably mean reductions of another 100,000 soldiers on top of cuts already planned, including 50,000 reservists, said Gen. Lloyd Austin, the Army vice chief of staff.
Current plans call for the active-duty Army to shrink from about 560,000 today to about 490,000 during the next five years. Austin’s comments suggest the sequester law could push that final active-duty end strength down to about 440,000.
For the Navy, the budget cuts imposed under sequestration could force today’s fleet of about 285 ships to drop to about 235 ships, Navy officials said. That would force DoD to reconsider basic elements of the national security strategy because the Navy would not be able to meet current expectations.
“The force that comes out of sequestration is not the force that can support the current strategy,” Adm. Mark Ferguson, vice chief of naval operations, told the senators.
Ferguson said the Navy would have to cut its overall annual budget by $15 billion, about the same as its annual shipbuilding budget.
For the Air Force, sequestration would force hard decisions about the air fleet’s size. “The Air Force is the oldest it’s ever been in terms of its iron,” said Gen. Philip Breedlove, Air Force vice chief of staff.
Marine Corps plans call for that service to shrink from today’s level of about 197,000 Marines to 182,000.
Dunford said sequestration would force an additional cut of about 18,000, down to 168,000. “We would not have adequate capabilities ... to meet a single major contingency operation.”