DoD's budget reprogramming won't help with sequestration

Thursday - 5/9/2013, 5:14am EDT

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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The Pentagon is putting the finishing touches on a package of proposals that would let it move some money between its programs during tough budget times. But even if Congress approves the request, it won't make a dent in the impact of sequestration.

Ashton Carter, deputy secretary of defense

DoD started this calendar year facing three big budget problems: the prospect of a year-long continuing resolution, higher than expected war costs in Afghanistan, and, of course, sequestration.

Congress fixed the first problem by passing a budget in late March.

And DoD says it will use its limited authority to request budget reprogramming to help plug the hole in its overseas contingency account.

None of that flexibility will be used to mitigate the impacts of sequestration, said Ashton Carter, the deputy defense secretary.

"We'll be urging Congress to approve that reprogramming quickly, but it won't be enough," he told reporters at the National Press Club Tuesday afternoon. "We'll still have to make large cuts in training and maintenance, which are seriously harming readiness."

Under current law, DoD can ask for permission to shuffle around up to $7.5 billion within its $605 billion 2013 appropriation. Carter said the department would very much like Congress to increase that reprogramming cap, but it's not something DoD has formally requested since it would require Congress pass and the president sign new legislation.

Falling below acceptable readiness

In the meantime, all three military departments say sequestration is already harming military readiness.

Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno told the House Appropriations Committee Wednesday that two-thirds of non-deployed units will fall below acceptable readiness standards by the end of the year.

Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno

"We're making sure that those who are deploying are fully trained and those who are next to deploy will be trained, but that's at the expense of training the rest of the Army," he said. "So we're now consuming our readiness, and we're not able to build it back up under our current budget constraints. My concern is that our readiness will continue to degrade this year and into fiscal 2014."

Among the Army's training cutbacks is the cancellation of seven of its 2013 combat training center rotations. Odierno said that while brigades headed to Afghanistan and South Korea in the short term will be fully trained, the Army will be less ready if it's asked to respond to a contingency in, for example, Syria.

"We always develop options so that we're prepared. We'll still develop those options, but they'll be higher-risk because of the reduction in readiness," he said. "The risk is in lives. We'll go, but if we're not as well trained, the cost will be more lives lost. We obviously want to avoid that."

Carter said the same is true in the other military services.

"What we're degrading is our capability to respond to the unforeseen. That's why this sequester thing is not only stupid, it's unsafe," he said.

DoD continues to believe the cuts required by sequestration are too large, and the Pentagon still desperately wants the across the board cuts to be abolished.

Asking for help

But now that the sequestration cuts are in place, senior leaders are imploring Congress for three things if they're to remain in place: flexibility to implement the cuts more intelligently, time to make their impacts less damaging and some degree of budget stability so that the military services can make strategic decisions about how to plan their spending.

Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley

"We understand that defense resources are likely to come down over the next decade, but we need Congress to sort of settle on what the numbers are. With whatever resources you provide, I can guarantee you that we'll deliver the best military available with that level of resources. That's what we do," Michael Donley, the Secretary of the Air Force told the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday. "The issue is we're not sure what the numbers are. To be making decisions months at a time or weeks at a time is not efficient for the department, and it prevents us from making the strategic decisions we'd like to make. We're making short term decisions that last only months or perhaps a year at most."

DoD's 2014 budget proposal assumed that sequestration would be resolved for 2014 and beyond. But last week, the chairman and the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee asked DoD to assume the opposite and to report back on what a military operating under long-term sequestration budget levels would look like.

Carter said DoD is doing that as part of the strategic choices review Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered last month. He said the review is roughly halfway finished and will consider a range of budget scenarios, including prolonged sequestration.

"Much as none of us might like that, we have to take seriously the possibility that what happened this year will happen again and again and again," he said. "It's in our DNA to get ready, even for things that we don't like. The product will be a clear delineation of the choices that we can make or might have to make, whether it's in force structure or investment or compensation or health care or in headquarters support or any of the other areas where we spend money. How can we do things differently in order to give the country the defense it needs for the amount of money we're going to get? That's the purpose of the review."

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