From left, U.S. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Ashton B. Carter, deputy secretary of defense; Robert F. Hale, under secretary of defense and comptroller; and Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, chief of staff of the Army, listen Feb. 12 during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. The committee called them to testify about the effects of the impending spending cuts known as sequestration, which will go into effect on March 1. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP/ Getty Images)
Pentagon leaders sent lawmakers a mixed message Tuesday, doling out different advice on whether Congress should again delay pending defense spending cuts, but they were unanimous in their view of the calamitous consequences such cuts would inflict on military capabilities.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “at the least” Congress should add more time to the clock ticking down to twin $500 billion cuts to planned defense and domestic spending. But Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey moments later said he disagreed, urging lawmakers to avoid again “kicking the can down the road.”
Carter also said he wants a permanent solution, but added he would take what he can get.
The hearing was peppered with dire descriptions by Carter, Dempsey and the nation’s other top military officers about the effects of the pending cuts, which would be carried out via a budget process known as sequestration.
The session’s most apocalyptic description came from Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos, who said the 10-year cut would place the military on a path that, for U.S. national security, would be “ruinous.”
When Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., asked Dempsey to rate on a 1-to-10 scale the negative impact of the pending cuts, he said “a 10.”
“Some think tank in town might be able to negotiate me down to an eight,” Dempsey said, “but it’s a 10.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., warned U.S. troops could die because of sequestration.
SASC Ranking Member James Inhofe, R-Okla., told Tim Kaine, the junior senator from Virginia, if sequestration is triggered, his commonwealth “would be out of business.”
Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mark Ferguson said the full decade-spanning cut would “fundamentally change the U.S. Navy.”
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno said the ground service would be forced to delay all of its many acquisition programs. Odierno called the Army’s fiscal picture “dire and unprecedented.”
Carter warned the Pentagon would have to rewrite its latest national defense strategy in a sequester realm. The deputy secretary sees a “true crisis in military readiness” if the full amount of across-the-board cuts is enacted.
The chiefs warned of deferred maintenance to aging weapon systems they suggested are falling apart. The nation’s top military officers joined Carter in warning of hundreds of thousands of layoffs and furloughs for civilian employees.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, echoed Carter’s description of the automatic cuts: “Dumb.”
King urged Obama to load House and Senate leaders on Marine One this evening, fly them to Camp David, and keep them there until all can agree on the kind of $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction measure needed to turn off the coming domestic and defense cuts.
Carter said, because the fiscal year is in its fifth month, “it wouldn’t help that much.”
“We have to go everywhere to get the $46 billion in 2013 cuts that a triggered sequestration would require,” Carter said. “We have to go everywhere there are dollars to take.”
Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, warned the USAF would need to “look completely” at the F-35 program, cut the number of aircraft in the service, and that modernization of the fleet would be “impossible.”
“Our kick-in-the-door capability would be impacted,” Welsh told Graham.
Some Budget Space
In response to questions about the U.S. ability to monitor nuclear threats, Welsh stressed that due to how its budget is organized, U.S. Space Command has more discretion than other USAF entities.
Welsh took questions from Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., about what impact sequestration might have on U.S. Space Command, especially in light of this morning’s North Korean nuclear test.
“Missile warning is not impacted,” Welsh said. “We still have the capacity to do that. That threat to the nation will be detected.”
That’s because U.S. Space Command has “a fairly wide latitude of where to take the money from under the cuts of sequestration,” according to Welsh.
“Compared to some other accounts, it actually gives them a little bit more freedom.”
Because of that, Space Command plans to reduce funds in areas that provide redundancy for its programs, a move that should not change America’s ability to detect threats from enemy missiles around the clock.
The Army is on the hook for $17 billion to $18 billion worth of cuts under sequestration, Odierno told the panel. “I began my career in a hollow Army [in the 1970s]; I don’t want to end my career in a hollow Army.”
Odierno stuck closely with several Army sequestration briefing slides that have leaked to the press over the past few weeks. But he added that if sequestration hits, he would expect to lose as many as 100,000 soldiers from active duty and the National Guard in the coming years, on top of the 80,000 troops the service is already required to cull beginning in 2015.
Since 2008, he continued, the Army’s budget has fallen 38 percent as operations in Iraq have concluded and several major modernization programs have been completed, but the sequestration cuts would increase that cut to 45 percent.
With less money, “we’re going to have to reduce purchase orders for over 3,000 small companies” around the country, the chief said, as well as letting go as many as 10,000 employees at maintenance depots, double what the service had estimated just last month.
In a Feb. 6 memo, the Army estimated that it may take as long as 150 days to restart any contract that has been shut down due to budget pressure, and that “this considerable time lag creates a FY14 problem. Workload to renegotiate contracts will overburden an already taxed acquisition workforce and likely increase costs in the short term.”
And some of those contracts are significant. Other documents have already reported that 21 of the service’s 26 major acquisition priorities would be at risk of incurring Nunn-McCurdy breaches, which would in turn impact smaller-tier suppliers.
Rick Maze contributed to this report.