Military issues dire warnings of readiness crisis, decries political gridlock

Wednesday - 2/13/2013, 6:02am EST

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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The leaders of each of the military services warned senators Tuesday that the military is on the brink of a readiness crisis as sequestration looms just two weeks away. And in some areas, they say the consequences of the budget scenario are already being felt.

The problems are the result of the combination of Congress' failure to pass a 2013 budget and the automatic sequestration cuts the Pentagon has called a "doomsday" scenario. The steepness of the defense cuts, the military service chiefs told the Senate Armed Services Committee, would be unprecedented and would make large segments of the uniformed military unready to deploy by the end of the year.

But when he testified before the panel, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter sounded almost resigned to the idea that the doomsday scenario would indeed come to pass.

"We've been using the word 'devastating' for 16 months now. There was a time when I thought sequestration was unlikely. I used to say I was hopeful and optimistic. Then I said I was just hopeful. Now I'm not even hopeful. We're only two weeks away," he said."

The $45 billion in cuts scheduled to take place on March 1 would slice every program in DoD by an equal amount. Congress made the cuts irrational and painful by design so that it would force itself to find another way to reduce the national deficit. But those punitive 2013 cuts are only the beginning. The 2011 Budget Control Act, the law which created sequestration, also imposes caps on DoD spending for 10 years. The military says these caps are so austere that the current defense strategy, unveiled a year ago, would have to be discarded and rewritten.

Dempsey: Things will only get worse

This year's cuts will severely erode military readiness, and things will only get worse from there, said Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

"None of us walk away from a crisis or a fight, that's not in our nature. But if ever the force is so degraded and so unready, and then we're asked to use it, it would be immoral to use the force unless it's well-trained, well-led and well-equipped," he said.

Asked by Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) whether the nation was now creating that dilemma for future commanders, Dempsey replied: "We are on that path."

Because of the different characteristics of the military services, sequestration would have different readiness impacts for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. But the Army and Marines would see what are arguably the most immediate short-term impacts. They would have the largest proportional shortfalls in their operation and maintenance accounts, which fund everything from training to service contracting to civilian pay.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army's chief of staff, said the Army would have a $17 billion-$18 billion shortfall in its O&M accounts by the end of this year if sequestration and a full-year continuing resolution both occur. He said the Army is prioritizing funds for warfighing in Afghanistan, but it would be forced to cut out training for 80 percent of its ground forces.

"Currently, we've funded the next group of units that would go into Afghanistan, but we cannot fund the group that comes after them in the later part of 2013," he said. "It would take them much longer to be prepared, so we'll have to make a decision somewhere along the line to either extend those who are already there or send people over who are not ready. I'd choose not to send people who are not ready. That's the cascading problem we have."

Odierno said the Army also would have to impose delays on each one of its 10 major acquisition programs and cancel repair and maintenance of major equipment in the second half of fiscal 2013, causing the layoffs of approximately 5,000 civilians. In 2014 and beyond, the Army would have to reduce its size by at least another 100,000 soldiers.

"I began my career in a hollow Army," said Odierno, who graduated from West Point in 1976. "I do not want to end my career in a hollow Army."

Half of Marine units will fall below minimum readiness standards by year's end

In the Marine Corps, the story is similar. With much of its operation and maintenance budget dedicated to Afghanistan, it'll have to take cuts disproportionately from non-deployed operations.

Gen. Jim Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps

Gen. Jim Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said those resource reprioritizations are already having an effect. By the end of this year, more than 50 percent of Marine units will fall below the service's minimum acceptable readiness standards for combat deployments.

"I have kept deploying units ready, but only by stripping away the foundations of the long-term readiness of the total force," he said. "While these short-term adaptations are possible, the enduring effects of some of these decisions put us at an unsustainable tipping point. We're eating our seed corn to feed our current demands, leaving less to plant for the long-term capabilities of the force. This pattern inevitably leads to a hollow force, and its impacts are already being felt under the continuing resolution."

They're being felt in the Navy as well, said Adm. Mark Ferguson, the vice chief of naval operations.

For instance, the Navy last week canceled the deployment of the carrier U.S.S. Truman just as sailors were preparing to depart. By the end of this week, it will notify private-sector shipbuilders that it's canceling all maintenance in the third and fourth quarter of this year. And if sequestration happens a couple weeks later, training will take an immediate hit.

"Like the other services, we'll effectively stop training and certification," he said. "We shut down four air wings on March 1. After nine days, those pilots lose their certifications, and now it takes six to nine months to retrain them at a much higher cost."

And Furguson said the cash shortfall has already had an effect on the maintenance the Navy is performing as a result of the hiring freeze DoD has imposed across the military services.

"We now lose about 350 workers a week, 1,400 a month. We'll be down 3,000 people in our shipyards soon," he said. "[If sequestration occurs], we will furlough the workers in our shipyards, which will cascade through on the work completion rates of the submarines and ships going through overhaul in those public yards and really impact on the readiness going forward."

Furloughs for civilian workforce would begin in April

Carter said under sequestration, most of DoD's civilian workforce would be furloughed for one day a week, probably beginning in April after the military makes required legal notifications to Congress and labor groups.

He told the Senate that the furlough of what he termed DoD's "much-maligned" civilian workforce would have immediate operational impacts.

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter

"People seem to think these are all people who live in the Washington suburbs and come in to work in the morning at office buildings. They're not. They are mostly people at depots and shipyards who are fixing our equipment," he said. "Forty-four percent of them are veterans. 86 percent of them don't even live in the Washington area. The net of it is that many of them will be furloughed for as many as 22 days, in other words, a fifth of their paycheck will be gone."

As a presidential appointee, Carter said he cannot legally be furloughed.

"But I'm going to give back a fifth of my salary if the rest of the people in our department are getting sequestered," he said.

And while uniformed military pay would be exempt from sequestration, service members would be hit too, the Pentagon says. DoD would have to try to scramble to fill a multibillion dollar hole in its separate 2013 healthcare budget, hopefully avoiding cuts to TRICARE services.

But Dempsey said most other services military members rely on would suffer.

"The support services, whether it's teachers in schools or medical professionals in clinics, about 30 percent of base operations will be degraded," he said.

Even though he's no longer hopeful that Congress will avoid sequestration in the remaining couple weeks, Carter pleaded with lawmakers to at least delay the across-the-board cuts once again, assuming that there's not enough time to reach a grand bargain which would cancel them entirely.

"But the cloud of uncertainty hanging over our nation's defense affairs is already having lasting and irreversible effects. Ultimately, the cloud of sequestration needs to be dispelled and not just moved to the horizon," he said. "What's particularly tragic is that sequestration is not a result of an economic recession or an emergency. It's not because discretionary spending cuts are the answer to our nation's fiscal challenge, you can do the math. It's not because the paths of revenue and entitlement spending have been explored and exhausted, and it's not because sequestration was ever a plan that was intended to be implemented. All this is purely the collateral damage of political gridlock."

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