WASHINGTON — The US military's uniformed No. 2s on Tuesday warned that readiness accounts, starved by years of budget instability, are in urgent need of relief.
The vice chiefs of America's armed forces said their personnel and aging equipment are stretched thin amid years of war, statutory budget caps and temporary workarounds, end-strength cuts, and Congress passing nine consecutive continuing resolutions.
Senior House Armed Services Committee members joined the brass in lamenting the unpredictability, but none offered a plan to navigate the Capitol Hill deadlock over budget caps, commonly called sequestration, that threatens to stymie the Trump administration's military buildup plans. Congress punted on 2017 appropriations, and the federal government is on a stopgap continuing resolution that expires April 28.
"I continue to be concerned — and sometimes even disturbed — by evidence that is accumulating on the damage inflicted upon our military in recent years and the stresses on the force," HASC Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said.
"That damage comes from a variety of factors including budget cuts of over 20 percent, continuing resolutions, the failure to recognize — or at least admit — and then address mounting readiness problems, as well as shrinking the size of the force while keeping a high tempo of operations. There is plenty of blame to go around between both parties and both the executive and legislative branches for what has been done.
"But now with a new administration and a new Congress, we have the opportunity to begin the repairs."
If Congress were to call off 2017 appropriations altogether and pass a stop-gap continuing resolution that leaves funding flat for the rest of the year, officials said the services would be forced to further raid readiness accounts. Marine Corps training flights would stop in July, the Army would face a large, but unready, hollow force and the Air Force would decommission air wings, officials said.
Speaking with reporters after the hearing, Thornberry said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said last night the appropriations committee "has a green light to go ahead on the defense appropriations bill." It's unclear when the Trump administration will offer its supplemental defense spending plan, Thornberry said, "but on the House side, it's let's get this done ... You've heard here some of the consequences of not doing it."
While the amount of a supplemental has not been made public, senior Pentagon officials are circulating in Congress informal plans for increasing the defense budget by more than $30 billion to acquire new jet fighters, armored vehicles, improved training and more.
At Tuesday's hearing, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. William Moran said the Navy is the smallest and least ready it's been in years due to high demand of naval forces, funding cuts and consistent uncertainty about when Congress would fund the military. The service satisfies 40 percent of demand from regional combatant commanders.
Wear and tear on ships and aircraft and maintenance crews has created a "downward readiness spiral," with equipment failures and the removal of ships and aircraft from service, he said. For the aging Hornets, for example, it takes twice as much time to service as the platform was designed to take, stressing diminished depot capacity, he said.
"If the slow pace of readiness recovery continues, unnecessary equipment damage, poorly trained operators at sea, and a force improperly trained and equipped to sustain itself will result," Moran said. "Absent sufficient funding for readiness, modernization and force structure, the Navy cannot return to full health, where it can continue to meet its mission on a sustainable basis."
The comments come after Defense News broke the story that nearly two-thirds of the Navy's strike fighters can't fly because they're either undergoing maintenance or simply waiting for parts or their turn in line on the aviation depot backlog. Overall, more than half the Navy's aircraft are grounded, most because there isn't enough money to fix them.
Army Vice Chief Gen. Daniel Allyn said one-third of Army brigade combat teams, one-fourth of combat aviation brigades and half of division headquarters are ready. Only three of 58 the Army's BCTs are considered ready to "fight tonight," Allyn said.
"What it comes down to … we will be too late to need, our soldiers will arrive too late, our soldiers will require too much time to close the manning, training and equipping gap," he said, adding: "The end result is excessive casualties to civilians and to our forces who are already forward stationed."
Allyn called on lawmakers to repeal existing budget caps. Without that, all fiscal workarounds, "though nice in the short term, will prove unsustainable, rendering all your hard work for naught," he said.
Work is ongoing at the Pentagon to determine how many more troops the service needs, and Allyn lauded authorizations from the committee to rebuilding Army end strength. "It's not all doom and gloom," Allyn said.
Air Force Vice Chief Gen. Stephen W. Wilson said the Air Force is the smallest it has ever been.
Aircraft numbers have fallen from 8,600 in 1991 to 5,500, and their average age is 27 years. There are 55 fighter squadrons, down from 134. Fewer than 50 percent of the Air Force's combat forces are "sufficiently ready for a highly contested fight against peer adversaries — creating unacceptable risk for our airmen, our joint partners, and our nation."
"At the very bottom of what we call the hollow force in the 1970s, pilots were flying 15 sorties a month, about 20 hours," Wilson said. "Today we're flying less hours and less sorties than the 1970s."
Assistant Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Glenn Walters said 80 percent of his aviation units lack the minimum number of ready basic aircraft for training, and the service is "significantly short ready aircraft for wartime requirements."
"We simply do not have the available aircraft to meet our squadrons' requirements," Walters said. "This means that flight hour averages per crew per month are below the minimum standards required to achieve and maintain adequate flight time and training and readiness levels."
Senior HASC Democrat Rep. Jim Cooper, of Tennessee, bemoaned the succession of continuing resolutions passed by Congress and addressed the newer members of the committee.
"This is the chance for a new day, and a new approach, to have a stronger military that is ready for any threat we can face," Cooper said. "The worst enemy we face is ourselves. Our BCA of 2011 probably poses a greater threat to our military than any foreign adversary. So why do we hurt ourselves? There is probably no good reason for this."
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.