On the eve of a vote to adjourn Congress until after the elections, top military and civilian Defense Department officials unveiled new details on the harm that looming across-the-board budget cuts would inflict if they kicked in this January.
Warning two House panels of impending cuts to stateside training and a need to renegotiate recent contracts, officials avoided delving down to the level of specific programs and steered clear of taking sides in Congress’ ongoing political stalemate over the budget.
“I contend we’re already in sequestration, that jobs are being lost and things are getting cut off,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., told a hearing. “As far as I’m concerned, the DoD shuts down in January.”
He noted that one program that might be jeopardized is training to thwart the improvised explosive devices that are killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan. It wasn’t fair, McKeon added, that defense is 17 percent of the federal budget but took 50 percent of the cuts in the 2011 Budget Control Act.
Gauging the probable impact of a $52 billion cut in fiscal 2013, or 9.4 percent, to all Pentagon programs except military personnel, Comptroller Robert Hale said he foresees cuts concentrated disproportionately in operations and maintenance.
“The Army and Marine Corps would have less training, and there would be civilian personnel hiring freezes and possibly unpaid furloughs,” he said. “There would be substantial adverse effects on research and development, procurement, and military construction. We would buy fewer quantities of weapons, which drives up unit costs, and shipbuilding would be delayed.”
Sequestration also would require cutting family housing maintenance and base-operating support, while delaying TRICARE payments to providers, “which could end up in denial of service," Hale said. “We’d have some authority to move money into operations to protect wartime operations, but I don’t want to make it sound easy. I hope Congress passes something the president can sign and halt sequestration.”
Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the Army’s vice chief of staff, said sequestration would “significantly increase risks and cause us to relook” at the defense strategy the Obama administration released in January. If the automatic cuts must happen, he said, then “we must be afforded resources to adjust, to reduce inefficiencies, and focus on the highest priorities.”
Adm. Mark Ferguson, vice chief of naval operations, said the Navy would be hit with a $12 billion cut that would require “difficult choices in the second half of fiscal 2013,” chiefly in procurement and force structure. “That would translate into fewer sailors, fewer [shows of fleet force] and less maintenance, and would impact the industrial base and the service life of platforms,” he said. It also would involve $4 billion in cuts to shipbuilding and acquisitions, which could harm technology development centers.
Describing a recent visit to 10,000 sailors on an aircraft carrier, Ferguson said, “all of them expressed concern over what this would mean to the Navy and to their service -- the fiscal crisis is increasingly on their minds.”
Gen. Joseph Dunford, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, made a contrary point, saying the troops in Afghanistan “are too busy doing their jobs to think about what we’re doing in Washington for the next budget.” But he said he fears that “we will lose the trust and confidence of the all-volunteer force, which will take a long time to get back.” The Marines won’t “miss a call,” he added, but January might bring the beginning of a “hollow force. The bench back home would get thinner and thinner, causing significant degradation in our readiness.”
All the officials stressed that the planning under way dealt with dollar cuts and they could not answer questions from lawmakers about specific contracts or programs. They added that contracts signed using dollars from fiscal 2012 or before were fully funded.
“We won’t start cutting in advance, because we don’t want to sequester ourselves,” Hale said. “But it is in the back of our minds, and we will pick up the pace now that everyone understands the law, even if they don’t like it.”
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., asked colleagues, “How could you listen to the comptroller and vice chiefs and conclude the Pentagon wasn’t planning?” He said it was more important to focus on a solution than on prospective harm that the Pentagon has had no choice but to anticipate.
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., concerned about the prospect of the Pentagon having to renegotiate 2,500 contracts, asked Hale whether he’d favor a new law to head off sequestration. Hale said he would take the suggestion under consideration.