Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, testifies at a Senate hearing on the impacts of sequestration on Nov. 7 in Washington, D.C. (Colin Kelly / Staff)
WASHINGTON — The US Army’s top general on Thursday defended the military against critics who contend the Defense Department can make deep cuts to planned spending without becoming less lethal.
“Sequestration has had a profound effect on our efforts to prepare units for future contingency operations,” Gen. Raymond Odierno told the Senate Armed Services Committee in his written testimony. “The continued implementation of the reduced discretionary caps, beginning in [fiscal] 2014, will have drastic impacts across all aspects of Army readiness in training, equipment sustainment and modernization, military and civilian manning, and installation support.”
But as he closed his opening statement, Odierno made clear he disagrees with analysts and some lawmakers who believe the Pentagon budget — nearly $600 billion with war funding — can absorb more cuts.
“I do not consider myself an alarmist,” the Army chief said. “I consider myself a realist.”
The military’s top generals and civilian officials for two years have appeared before congressional hearings with dire warnings about the impact of sequestration. During that time, some in Washington have questioned their gloomy forecasts.
One is Larry Korb, a former senior Pentagon official who now is an analyst at the Center for American Progress. Korb issued a statement about sequestration as the hearing started, an unusual move for a think tank analyst.
Korb contends the pending sequester cuts are merely a course correction after a decade of unprecedentedly large Pentagon budgets while the nation fought its post-9/11 conflicts.
“The Pentagon’s problems are not caused by the amount of money that is available under sequestration but by the process that requires them to cut all items in the budget, other than military personnel, by an equal amount,” Korb said. “Sequestration brings the budget in real terms back to its fiscal year 2007 level and in real terms is higher than it was on average during the Cold War.”
Another is retired Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, external communications chief at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, who issued his own statement during the hearing slamming America’s top generals.
“Pentagon leaders have before them the ultimate task and challenge — to take the ‘Rubik’s Cube’ of Pentagon waste, inefficiency and an out-of-date Cold War infrastructure and do actual work to make it into something that is streamlined, efficient and effective,” Shaffer said.
“This is not an easy task, one that most Pentagon military leaders have fought against undertaking by making outlandish claims that we only have 1/100th of our ground forces capable of defending our nation — a claim that only encourages enemies to think somehow we are weak,” Smith said.
“We are not weak. We are made weak by the overbearing egos of generals whose ossification of thinking limits the creativity of our men and women in uniform who never turn away a challenge,” he said.
“These men and women are owed better, they are owed real leadership. And leadership in this instance demands we begin the work of making DoD more effective and modern, not more redundant and lost in a past era.”
Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh told Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., that the amount of the sequestration cuts are not the problem. “It’s the mechanism that breaks us,” he said, referring to the 2011 Budget Control Act’s mandate that only non-exempt accounts are subject to cuts.
That means large items like personnel pay and benefits are exempt from sequestration, delivering a more forceful blow to accounts such as those used to develop and buy new combat systems.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos offered some hard numbers as to how sequestration will take a bigger bite out of his accounts than Congress had originally intended.
Thanks to the decade-long cuts he will be forced to cancel or postpone programs that one of his successors will have to restart. The result of paying penalties for canceling contracts will cost the Corps $6.5 billion in its aviation accounts alone, money he said could otherwise buy four F-35 squadrons and two MV-22 squadrons.
Odierno added that since he is being forced to curtail training activities for units not heading to Afghanistan and South Korea, “this is the lowest readiness levels in the Army” since he joined in 1976.
While SASC members are full-throated in their intention to get rid of most or all of the remaining Pentagon sequestration cuts, there was some criticism Thursday about how it runs its programs and manages its monies.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., got an “I don’t know” from Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert when he asked if any program managers or service officials have been fired over weapon program cost overruns.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., also criticized Pentagon program management and practices that result in the buying of over-priced parts.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., pleaded with Odierno to “not spend money on any more programs like” some of the service’s worst-performing weapon initiatives.
McCain also told the chiefs their staffs are too large and should be cut further to save additional funds.
SASC members offered few ideas to undo deep Pentagon spending reductions, while the nation’s top generals issued dire warnings about the coming cuts.
The hearing featured familiar rhetoric from lawmakers about the automatic, across-the-board cuts many of them voted for in August 2011. But few offered concrete ideas on how to replace the remaining nine years and around $450 billion of the defense sequester cuts.
The four-star chiefs of each military service laid out a litany of gloomy steps they say they would have to enact if the cuts remain in place. The chiefs painted the image of a US military that would be untrained, unready and less-equipped to conduct more than one major operation at once.
As they have previously testified before House and Senate panels, Odierno and the other service chiefs drove home their sequestration warnings with words like “bleak” and “insidious.”
The chiefs warned of smaller forces, the purchase of fewer new combat platforms and delays to upgrades. Greenert warned that in many cases, “we are not saving costs, we are deferring costs … that are going to come home to roost.”
The chiefs made clear that weapon programs would be hit hard under further sequester rounds.
“When it comes to future investment and modernization, the public may not recognize the effects of these reductions initially,” Welsh told the panel. “The damage will be insidious. However, should we face a high-end threat in the future, the impact of not modernizing will be blatant and deadly.”
To that end, he labeled the KC-46 aerial tanker, F-35 and new long-range bomber programs as the service’s top priorities. But, he warned, “sequestration-level cuts would severely threaten each of our top priority programs as well as every single lower priority program.”
For the Army, Odierno warned of “significant risk” for its major weapon programs.
“In the event sequestration-level discretionary caps continue into FY14, we will assume significant risk in our combat vehicle development and delay the fielding of Abrams training simulators by two years,” he said. “In our aviation program, we cannot afford to procure a new Armed Aerial Scout program and we will be forced to reduce the production and modernization of 25 helicopters.
“We will reduce system upgrades for unmanned aerial vehicles. We will delay the modernization of air defense command-and-control systems. If reductions of that magnitude continue into [fiscal 2015] and beyond, every acquisition program will be affected,” Odierno said. “These reductions will significantly impact 100 modernization programs.”
For the Navy, Greenert said “investment accounts will be particularly impacted by sequestration in [fiscal] 2014, and we will not be able to use prior-year funds to mitigate shortfalls as we did in [fiscal] 2013.”
Greenert said “reductions imposed by sequestration and the limitations of a [continuing resolution] will compel us to” take steps such as canceling the planned buy of a Virginia-class attack submarine in 2014, as well as one littoral combat ship and afloat forward staging base.
“Each of these would further worsen the reduction in fleet size,” Greenert said.
He also warned of a need to delay the start of work on the first Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine replacement known as SSBN(X) in 2021 by one year.
“This would cause us to be unable to meet US Strategic Command presence requirements when the Ohio-class SSBN retires,” he warned.
The Navy also would have to cancel planned buys of 11 aircraft, including four EA-18G Growlers, one F-35C joint strike fighter and three MH-60 Seahawk helicopters. Delivery of the class-leading aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford would be delayed by two years.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos focused his comments mostly on the size of his service under further spending cuts.
“We have determined that within sequestration-level budgets that our force design of 174,000 is the lowest temporary level that can retain America’s crisis response force. This provides a minimum acceptable level of readiness,” Amos said. “Further reductions will incur heightened, and in some cases prohibitive, risk to the National Security Strategy.”
Panel members displayed colorful charts they said showed how sequestration will degrade the readiness of each military service, leaving the entire force unable to simultaneously conduct a major operation and a smaller one.
Odierno signaled the chiefs would welcome some flexibility to decide what gets cut under sequestration, but said that kind of authority only would help “around the edges.”