WASHINGTON — The 26 senators who oversee the U.S. armed forces heard an old message with new urgency Thursday from the four service chiefs about the impact of federal spending cuts: “There is no more meat on our bones.”
At a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, leaders of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines said the ongoing effects of sequestration, government shutdowns, and year-to-year budgets instead of long-term planning will multiply in the 2014 fiscal year to devastating effect.
They minced no words, saying forces will become thinner, combat readiness will be limited, training will be shortened and equipment will become older and less well-maintained.
The eventual result, said Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos, would be more combat deaths. He predicted Marines would someday be sent to a combat theater and forced to stay until the end of the conflict.
“We would empty the entire bench,” he said. “There would be no rotational relief like we had in Iraq and Afghanistan. Marines who join the Corps during that war would go from the drill field to the battlefield without the benefit of pre-combat training.
“We would have fewer forces, arriving less-trained, arriving later to the fight. This would delay the build-up of combat power, allow the enemy more time to build up their defenses, and likely prolong combat operations altogether. This is a formula for more U.S. casualties.”
Sequestration — a series of forced federal spending cuts over 10 years, mandated in the 2011 Budget Control Act — took effect in March for the 2013 budget year, which ended Sept. 30. In the current fiscal year, sequestration would take a $50 billion slice out of the Pentagon budget in mid-January, to keep the base DOD budget to $475 billion. The cuts could only be avoided if the bipartisan budget conferees come up with an alternate solution by the self-imposed deadline of mid-December.
Specifically, Amos said the Marine Corps has already fallen from a force of 186,800 to 182,100 as a result of sequestration.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno referred to “significantly degraded readiness and equipment modernization shortfalls.” That includes an ongoing reduction in active Army from 570,000 to 490,000, with Army National Guard numbers falling from 358,000 to 350,000 and Army Reserves maintaining at 205,000. Odierno said the Army’s readiness was the lowest in his 37 years in the service.
Continuing cuts would take active Army members to 420,000, Army National Guard to 315,000, and Army Reserve to 185,000 — an end strength reduction of 18 percent, Odierno said. More than $700 million in maintenance and acquisition costs for aircraft, vehicles, weapons and communications equipment would also continue to be deferred.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said the effects of sequestration cuts would be “considerably worse” in the 2014 fiscal year than in 2013, because of an estimated 10 percent cut to funds. Also the Navy, like the other forces, would have no flexibility to manage the flat, across-the-board cuts, Greenert said.
“The overall cost of sequestration reduces our capability and capacity over time, but it doesn’t break us. The mechanism is what breaks us,” Greenert said. “If we had the trust available to believe the department would return $1.3 trillion over 10 years, and we could show you a plan of how to do that, eliminating this abrupt nature of the mechanism would be a much, much more sensible approach.”
Greenert predicted the Navy would have a fleet of 255 ships in 2020 — 30 fewer than today.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said the Air Force would cut training flying hours by up to 15 percent, continue its civilian hiring freeze, and cut approximately 25,000, or 5 percent airmen over the next five years as well as about 550, or 9 percent, of aircraft.
Several of the chiefs said they had been able to weather sequestration during the past fiscal year by creative accounting measures such as using funds that had already been appropriated in prior years, or using reserve accounts, or implementing hiring freezes.
Asked by committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., if they could continue to use such “Temporary, ad-hoc, scrambling measures” again, all four said no.
“There is no more meat on our bones,” said Amos.