The uniformed chiefs of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps got another shot at describing the deepening readiness crisis that Congress has inflicted on the armed forces.
The chance came as the sequester-driven chaos of 2013 kicks into a kind of hyper drive with new budget threats from political gamesmanship: a possible federal government shutdown in October and a fresh attempt by Republicans to defund the 2010 Affordable Care Act by refusing to raise the U.S. debt ceiling, leaving the nation at risk of defaulting on loan obligations.
Though U.S. troops still fight in Afghanistan, the military faces year two of arbitrary defense cuts, this one set at $52 billion for the year that begins Oct. 1. The cuts likely will be delayed for some months by a "continuing budget resolution," or CR, which Congress needs to pass by October because it hasn't enacted a final defense appropriations bill.
The CR would freeze military spending at fiscal 2013 levels, but deny the services authority to start new programs, thus deepening the backlog of military construction projects and new purchases on weapon systems.
Every chief of service testified before the House Armed Services Committee that force readiness is falling, rapidly. Unless Congress dampens the impact of the automatic budget cuts, called sequestration and unwisely made part the 2011 Budget Control Act, then the services will be unable to execute force requirements set down in 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance.
By October 2014, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno warned, "85 percent of our active and reserve [component] Brigade Combat Teams will not be prepared for contingency requirements."
The active Army is drawing down from a wartime peak of 570,000. But the cost of every active soldier above 490,000 is being funded by the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, not the Army's basic budget, Odierno explained. That gimmick to make Army and Marine Corps budgets look smaller in wartime means that until active strength falls sufficiently, Army's share of budget cuts under sequestration must come entirely out of operations, maintenance and weapon modernization.
Odierno predicted degrading readiness and "extensive modernization program shortfalls" through fiscal 2017. Funding shortfalls will impact more than 100 Army acquisition programs, putting at risk the ground combat vehicle program, the Army's Aerial Scout program and many others.
He said sequestration would cut total Army strength by 18 percent over seven years, with the active Army falling 26 percent to 420,000; Army National Guard sliding 12 percent to 315,000 and Army Reserve dropping nine percent to 185,000. Total Brigade Combat Teams will fall by 45 percent.
"In my view, these reductions will put at substantial risk our ability to conduct even one sustained major combat operation," Odierno said.
"It is imperative that the Congress not implement the tool of sequestration," Odierno added, calling himself a realist not "an alarmist."
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos testified that sequestration is putting the nation at risk. In the past year, the Corps has sustained readiness of deployed forces "at the expense of infrastructure and sustainment and modernization programs. This can't continue...If we are to succeed on future battlefields we must modernize and we must care for our infrastructure and training facilities," which now are degrading.
"Soon there will be little left within these accounts to offset our readiness requirements," Amos said.
If sequestration continues, Marine Corps active strength will fall to 174,000 versus 186,800 needed to carry out defense strategy guidance. That smaller force, if sent to war, couldn't return until the fighting stopped, Amos said. In peacetime, a Corps that small would only support two-for-one dwell time, or a year back home for every six months deployed. For force and family morale, the Corps should be sized for three-to-one dwell, he said.
"Sequestration will force us to plow through scare resources, funding our old equipment and weapon systems in an attempt to keep them alive and functional," Amos said, while modernization weapon programs get canceled.
Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, warned that if sequestration continues in fiscal 2014, Navy will cancel procurement of 11 tactical aircraft, one Virginia-class submarine, a littoral combat ship and an afloat forward staging base. Delivery of the new Ford aircraft carrier would be delayed along with mid-life overhaul of an older carrier. Navy would continue only "safety-essential" facility renovations.
By 2020, the Navy's combat fleet would fall to 255 ships -- 30 fewer than today and 51 fewer than needed to support the defense strategy.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III said, without relief from sequestration, his service over the next five years will cut its active force by 25,000 airmen, about 5 percent, and cut aircraft by 550, or 9 percent.
"We will be forced to divest entire fleets of aircraft," Welsh said, rather than taking down some aircraft of every type. Spending on modernization would be cut 50 percent overall, raising the cost of every new aircraft and delaying delivery of critical equipment. But even after a full decade of sequestration, Air Force would remain best in the world, Welsh predicted, sounding a lone note of cheer amid three hours of gloom.
Rep. Jim Cooper, of Tennesse, a senior Democrat on the committee, told the four-star officers it is they who should be grilling Congress on the "irrational budget environment" it created because of "political bickering."
Rep. Harold "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif, committee chairman, took exception some of Cooper's remarks, those largely blaming Republicans. But McKeon acknowledged partisanship is harming the armed forces.
"I agree that we haven't done the type of job that we should, and we need to dig in and really work hard on this problem," McKeon said.
Later, bringing the hearing to a close, he gave an even weaker assessment of how this once powerful committee might bring some relief to a deepening readiness crisis.
"Maybe we can have some sway in some of these discussions," McKeon said, to a seemingly unimpressed panel of warriors. "We haven't done so well so far but maybe going forward we can."
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