Sequestration's second year worse than its first, military chiefs warn

Friday - 11/8/2013, 3:57am EST

Jared Serbu reports.

Download mp3

The chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps returned to Capitol Hill Thursday with a message they've been delivering to the same audience for two years: Sequestration is a terrible idea. But the second year of the automatic cuts, they warned, would be significantly more damaging than the first.

If Congress doesn't pass a budget and eliminate the sequestration caps, the service chiefs warned the Army will have to reduce its overall size by 18 percent over the next seven years and inactivate almost half of its active brigade combat teams. By the end of 2014, 85 percent of all brigades will fall below minimum readiness levels.

The Air Force will cut back its 2014 flying hours by 15 percent, remove satellites from service and once again cancel major training exercises. The Navy would cancel the planned procurement of several ships and stop construction on its newest aircraft carrier, delaying its delivery date by two years. And the Marine Corps would shrink to 174,000 service members.

"Under sequestration, we will effectively lose a marine division's worth of combat power," said Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant. "This is a Marine Corps that would deploy to a major fight, and not return until the war was over. We will empty the entire bench. Marines who joined the Corps during that war would likely go straight from the drill field to the battlefield without the benefit of pre- combat training. We will have fewer forces arriving less-trained, arriving later to the fight this is a formula for more American casualties."

All four service chiefs told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the pain caused by the spending caps would be more acute in 2014 than in sequestration's first year, since DoD used several one-off approaches to blunt the impacts of the cuts during their first year, such as draining some programs' contingency funds to pay for current needs.

Also, the services each had some unexpended 2012 money that could be applied to offset the 2013 cuts. In the case of the Air Force, for example, those unobligated funds covered about a quarter of the service's sequestration bill in 2013. But that buffer won't be available this year. Virtually all of 2013's appropriations have already been spent.

"We were 99.8 percent obligated at the end of '13," Amos said. "Now there's no money to bring over. Our account is dry. We're gonna live with what we have, and we've taken measures in the past to lean the force. Civilian hiring was frozen two years ago. We've already gone through our travel accounts. We've taken our reserves off of active duty to reduce the (temporarily assigned duty) costs. We've done all that. There's really no more fat on our bones."

Also, the services delayed certain programs and deferred paying certain bills into 2014 in the hope that Congress would have abated sequestration by then. It has not, and those bills still have to be paid.

The services took similar steps with the training of military troops and the maintenance of equipment, deferring many activities into 2014 in the faint hope that Congress would create a "get well" plan for military readiness.

It did not, nor did it pass a budget for 2014. So the Defense Department is now operating under the assumption that it will continue to live under a continuing resolution, plus sequestration, for the indefinite future.

"We start on a CR that is roughly, just in our operating and maintenance account, $500 million less than we had programmed for '14," said Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force's chief of staff. "And the program didn't include the funding required to recover the readiness that we set aside last year. We are behind the power curve, and dropping farther behind the power curve.

As in 2013, readiness and modernization are the two major areas of the military budget the service chiefs are concerned most about. They are the most vulnerable during the first few years of the decade-long budget caps, because significant reductions in military and civilian personnel costs would require a years-long downsizing process.

Because of that, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, said it's already clear that his service won't be able to meet the demands of combatant commanders in 2014. The Navy, he said, has only one carrier strike group and one amphibious ready group ready to respond in case something goes wrong in the world.