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How will failure of 'super committee' affect the military?

UPDATED NOV. 21, 5:55 P.M. EST.

WASHINGTON — Troops could see fewer military jobs, less dwell time, more outdated equipment and plenty of frustration for military planners for years to come, now that congressional efforts to trim the federal deficit have failed.

For the last three months, members of the bipartisan committee on deficit reduction — the so-called “supercommittee” — have been working on plans to cut $1.2 trillion in federal spending over the next 10 years.

But on Monday, committee members said they could not reach a deal, disbanding the effort without offering any plan.

In a statement, co-chairs Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said that “despite our inability to bridge the committee's significant differences, we end this process united in our belief that the nation's fiscal crisis must be addressed and that we cannot leave it for the next generation to solve. We remain hopeful that Congress can build on this committee’s work and can find a way to tackle this issue in a way that works for the American people and our economy.

Here’s what troops need to know about this budget battle:

What happened this week?

The supercommittee had until this week to approve a plan, but fighting over whether tax hikes or other new revenue would be included in the proposal ultimately derailed the work.
Under terms approved by lawmakers in August, since the supercommittee could not reach a deal, $1.2 trillion in other federal spending curbs will automatically go into effect.
Half of that sequestration amount will come from defense programs, and the other half will be spread over nonsecurity programs (although Social Security and Medicaid would be protected). The cuts would go into effect starting in 2013.

Should the military be worried?

Administration officials earlier this year promised $450 billion in defense cuts over the next decade. Pentagon leaders for months have been saying they can handle that funding reduction with minimal risk, and that the military must be part of the solution to the country’s budget crisis.

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The $600 billion in automatic cuts would be on top of that promised $450 billion. For months, top military leaders have warned that slashing more than $1 trillion in defense money over the next decade could cripple the armed forces.

“It’s a ship without sailors,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at a Pentagon press conference earlier this month. “It’s a brigade without bullets. It’s an air wing without enough trained pilots. It’s a paper tiger, an Army of barracks, buildings and bombs without enough trained soldiers able to accomplish the mission.

“It’s a force that suffers low morale, poor readiness and is unable to keep up with potential adversaries. In effect, it invites aggression.”

In testimony before Congress this month, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said that “Sweeping cuts would slash our investment accounts, raid our operations and maintenance accounts … and inflict real damage to the effectiveness and well-being of our airmen and their families. Ultimately, such a scenario gravely undermines our ability to protect the nation.”

Lawmakers are considering a total defense budget of roughly $680 billion for fiscal 2012. With the two sets of cuts, Pentagon planners would be facing at least $100 billion less annually, almost a 15 percent cut in defense spending.

How will those cuts affect me?

Pentagon officials have not outlined specifics of what will be cut, saying they’ll make those decisions public when the fiscal 2013 budget plans are announced in February.
However, service chiefs have given lawmakers hints of what to expect during recent hearings before Congress.

End strength and equipment replacement would face drastic cutbacks. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said National Guard response to U.S. natural disasters would likely be curtailed, and fewer personnel could mean longer deployments for the troops left serving.
Operations like the U.S. involvement in Libya, the response to the Japanese earthquake and humanitarian missions across the globe would be impossible without that money, according to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert. Overseas bases in Europe and the Pacific could be shrunk or closed.

White House officials have already publicly discussed changes to military retirement and new Tricare fees for veterans, both moves that could save hundreds of millions.
No one so far has discussed cutting military pay, but troops have seen cost-of-living increases of less than 2 percent in their base pay each of the last two years.

Civilian defense workers remain under a pay freeze as part of cost-cutting moves announced late last year.

Can lawmakers just reverse those automatic cuts?

Some are trying, but President Obama said he will veto any attempt to do so, defying Republican lawmakers who arguue the automatic cuts in defense spending would jeopardize national security. McKeon said he will introduce legislation repealing the $600 billion in defense cuts in the next few days.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has vowed to block those efforts, telling reporters last week that piling all of the cuts onto nondefense spending would be unfair and unrealistic.

None of the automatic cuts would go into effect until 2013, so lawmakers would in theory have all of next year to negotiate alternative cuts or tax increases to replace those budget reductions.

But 2012 is also an election year for not just the White House, but also for 33 members of the Senate and all of the House of Representatives. For the last year, even without re-election looming, the budget fights have been highly partisan and slow moving.

Is this the only budget fight to worry about?

No, Congress still hasn’t approved the defense budget for fiscal 2012, which began Oct. 1. Last week, lawmakers passed another extension of a continuing resolution keeping the federal government running until Dec. 16.

In April, lawmakers nearly triggered a government shutdown over deficit spending when they waited until the last minute to pass an operating budget for federal agencies. The supercommittee was formed as a result of a similar budget fight during the August debt-ceiling debate, when those same disagreements put the U.S. on the verge of defaulting on its debt obligations.

Both times, Pentagon officials warned that military pay and benefits might be halted by the in-fighting, and defense officials drew up plans to furlough tens of thousands of civilian employees. The Dec. 16 deadline could again provide an opportunity for more budget chaos.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @LeoShane

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