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Brace for similar sequester impact in 2014, Greenert says

Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, told gatherings of Hampton Roads-based sailors and regional business and political leaders Wednesday that unless Congress intercedes, he's preparing for 2014 to be much like this year, with reductions in some military operations and ship construction and repairs, and the possibility of more civilian furloughs.

During a one-day visit to the region, Greenert, the Navy's top officer, voiced strong support for Oceana Naval Air Station, which several years ago was considered for closing because of urban encroachment, and for Newport News' nuclear shipbuilding operations.

In a morning all-hands meeting with about 950 sailors and Marines at Oceana and a noon Hampton Roads Chamber Commerce luncheon in Virginia Beach, the admiral acknowledged he expects that a divided Congress won't approve an annual budget before the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1. He also said he doubts lawmakers will stop the second year of automatic defense budget cuts known as sequestration.

The Navy was forced to trim $10.7 billion this year -- much of it in operations and maintenance, housing construction, shipbuilding and research. The service canceled deployments and cut back training.

"We're OK now," Greenert told the chamber, but added, "We're not where we need to be."

The money is there to pay for forward-deployed ships and aircraft, he said, but that has meant cutting back on people and ships ready to surge forward when world events require naval action.

"People say, 'Well, I don't understand this impact of sequestration. I don't see anything,' " Greenert said. The spending cuts are in areas away from deployment, he said.

The Navy has two aircraft carrier groups deployed -- one in the Pacific and a second in the Persian Gulf region -- and two amphibious assault ship groups deployed in each of the regions. But it has only one other carrier group and amphibious group with enough training time to be in ready reserve, Greenert said, and it needs three of each type of group prepared to surge.

"That's the part that concerns me," he said, noting, for example, that Virginia Beach residents aren't hearing as much jet noise from Oceana these days. "We don't have enough of our airplanes operating," he said.

Looking ahead to 2014, Greenert said Congress needs to give the military the authority to make the automatic budget cuts -- $52 billion next year -- where it wants rather than having to spread them across most spending accounts.

If the Navy can't shift around money, he said, the cuts will affect ship construction and repair operations because of the requirement to take money from "each and every project."

The 2014 cuts are part of sequestration -- a 10-year process to cut $1.2 trillion in federal spending that was triggered by Congress' failure to adopt a deficit reduction plan.

The other financial challenge for the Pentagon and other federal departments is that if Congress fails to approve an annual budget by the new fiscal year, the legislators likely will adopt short-term continuing resolutions to fund government for months at a time, but no clear long-range plan.

U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake, who also spoke at the chamber luncheon, said the political pressure in Congress to cut defense comes from both ends of the political spectrum.

"I face a pincer movement," said Forbes, who has a leadership post on the House Armed Services Committee. "I have on my far left a group of people that just don't believe that we ought to have a strong defense.... On my far right, I see people that if you cut $19 billion, they're not happy because you didn't cut $20 billion."

Greenert said he's not planning to require that civilian Defense Department employees take unpaid days off next year. "But I can't say we won't."

Most of the civilian workforce is taking off one day per week without pay for 11 weeks this summer and fall.

Greenert told his Oceana audience he expects that uniformed personnel will be exempted from pay and benefit cuts next year, as they were in 2013. But he indicated changes might come in future years.

Personnel expenses account for half of all defense spending, he said. "If we keep growing at the rate we're growing on entitlements -- and this includes health care and a whole host of things that we have to put in -- that's going to get up to 70 or 80 percent of our budget when you get up into 2022-23," he said. "That's extraordinary."
 

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