Pentagon officials push back on the Hill
DOD's Ashton Carter warns that a new national defense strategy might be needed if sequestration takes effect.
Thinly veiled barbs were flying in a Feb. 12 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, as top Pentagon leaders pressed lawmakers on the fiscal uncertainties they warn are threatening national security.
Military officials outlined ominous effects of budget pressures, and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter warned that a new national defense strategy might be in order if the sweeping cuts of sequestration go into effect. He also advised the committee of the looming impact on industry and civilian Defense Department personnel, who will be hit by canceled work orders and up to 20 days of furloughs, respectively.
"This action will seriously harm our ability to do important work, which will, in turn, harm national security," Carter said. "Civilians fix our ships and tanks and planes, staff our hospitals, handle contracting and financial management, and much more."
While some of the lawmakers took shots at one another -- arguing over who was responsible for instituting the Budget Control Act and the sequestration measure within it -- the military brass pointed back at Congress as a whole.
"Sequestration is not a result of an economic emergency or a recession," Carter said. "It's purely the collateral damage of political gridlock."
One by one, the military leaders outlined the cuts they expect and have already begun to implement. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said the Army faces a $17 billion to $18 billion shortfall in its operation and maintenance accounts, as well as $6 billion in cuts to other programs. Training will be curtailed for 80 percent of ground forces, and some 251,000 civilians face up to 22 furlough days. An estimated 5,000 employees stand to be terminated if third- and fourth-quarter depot maintenance orders are canceled.
"Combined with previous cuts, [sequestration] will result in a total reduction of at least 189,000 personnel from the force but probably even more than that,” Odierno said. “These reductions will impact every Army base and every installation in the Army.”
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos said his force faces "an unsustainable tipping point."
"The scale and abrupt implementation of sequestration will have devastating impacts on readiness," Amos said. "Sequestration will leave ships in ports, aircraft grounded for want of necessary maintenance and flying hours, units only partially trained and reset after 12 years of continuous combat, and modernization programs canceled." He added that by year's end, "more than 50 percent of my combat units will be below minimal acceptable levels of readiness for deployment to combat."
Adm. Mark Ferguson, vice chief of naval operations, said his service's furlough of 180,000 civilians would equal the loss of more than 31.5 million man-hours of productivity and specialized expertise, as well as a loss of more than 200,000 flying hours.
It is not the first time Pentagon leaders have warned Congress of the threats posed by sequestration and continuing resolutions, although the appearance by nearly all the military service chiefs is rare. Echoing earlier statements, the officials called for decisive congressional action.
"We should avoid kicking this can down the road," said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Whether their testimonies will help drive real action, however, remains to be seen. Amid the finger-pointing that marked the morning's hearing, some Republicans demanded action from President Barack Obama.
"The president must lead," said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the committee’s ranking member. "The president must be pragmatic. And the president must set aside political posturing and finally get serious about working with Congress to find a lasting solution to sequestration. The men and women in uniform deserve nothing less."
The service chiefs agreed and did not mince words in describing the severity of the situation.
"In the course of my 36-year career, I've commanded at every level," Odierno said. "I know what it takes to prepare this nation's sons and daughters for war. I know what it takes to grow leaders in the Army. I know what is required to send soldiers into combat. And I've seen firsthand the consequences when they're sent unprepared. I began my career in a hollow Army; I do not want to end my career in a hollow Army."