WASHINGTON — With Congress having left town until after the November elections and the threat of sequestration looming, servicemembers are growing anxious about just how deeply defense cuts will hit the military community, defense contractors and the larger economy.
During a recent tour of the Central Command region, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mark Ferguson visited “both of our aircraft carriers, our minesweepers, our patrol craft and other ships in the region,” he told the House Armed Services Committee last week. “I talked to over 10,000 of our forward-deployed sailors. At every forum, sailors — from the most junior to our operational commanders — expressed concern regarding what sequestration will mean to our Navy and their service. The uncertainty of our fiscal future is increasingly on the minds of our force.”
Sequestration would mean roughly a 10 percent cut in military spending, except for personnel accounts, on top of the $487 billion proposed by President Barack Obama and Defense Department leadership.
“Yes, we hear the anxiety. It’s definitely out there,” said Lauren Armstrong, a spokesperson for the Fleet Reserve Association.
Though military paychecks would be protected, enlisted sailors Armstrong has encountered worry about how their housing and health care benefits might be slashed. Accounts for both would likely undergo harsh cost-cutting measures under sequestration.
“Those also are important parts of the troops’ benefit and compensation packages,” she said. “So when you say that personnel accounts are going to be untouched, what we are hearing is: They may be impacted.”
Also heightening anxiety is the dearth of details from the White House and the Pentagon on how the Defense Department would make nearly $54 billion in cuts to defense spending required in 2013 alone, if sequestration is triggered. The sequestration cuts — more than $1 trillion in automatic spending cuts over 10 years, to be shared among defense and nondefense spending accounts — are scheduled to go into effect in Jan. 2, if Congress cannot reach a bipartisan compromise.
“A lot of it is very vague,” said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Families Association. “But we all know that something bad is going to happen to us. And for many folks, it’s the lack of knowledge that is raising the specter of anxiety.”
The four services’ operations and maintenance accounts would be reduced by more than $18 billion combined, according to a recent White House report on sequestration’s impact.
Troops are worried that reductions to those accounts also could mean cutbacks to the education budget for military children overseas, Tricare prescription benefits copays, hospital and base maintenance, and family support, she said.
“All of these affect the quality of life for these families,” she said. “And there are some dire predictions out there that can cause a lot of stress.”
That’s led in some cases to widespread speculation among troops and their families.
“I feel sorriest for that poor installation commander, who has no information about how [sequestration] will affect servicemembers at the installation level or that local community around it,” but has to field questions from those in his command every day, Raezer said.
Congressmen and defense contractors have been most visible in trying to raise the urgency level about sequestration’s debilitating effects on the military readiness, the economy and employment.
Contractors have begun sending layoff notices to many of their employees, warning that the hefty cuts could reduce or eliminate existing military contracts.
At a House Committee on Small Business hearing last week, Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, pointed to an economic impact study he conducted for the Aerospace Industries Association.
He predicted that the trickle-down effect of sequestration would amount to the loss of 2.1 million jobs nationwide. It would add an estimated 1.5 percentage points to the current unemployment rate, increasing it to 9.5 percent, he said.
Military families are becoming more aware of the threat, Raezer said.
“They should be asking political candidates and their congressmen at town halls who is going to fix this,” she said, “because time is running out.”