Service chiefs offer images of dead soldiers, grounded planes without more funding in 2017
WASHINGTON — The service chiefs on Wednesday offered a grim potential of dead soldiers, grounded planes and aging ships if Congress continues to use stopgap measures to fund military operations.
The four-star chiefs for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines made their cases during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee and outlined what they expect will be damaged if Congress fails to pass the 2017 defense budget and instead decides to fund the remaining part of the 2017 fiscal year, which goes to Sept. 30, through a continuing resolution.
The stopgap bills, called continuing resolutions, have been used frequently over the last eight years. Continuing resolutions lock the Pentagon’s budget in at last year’s spending level, which bars military services from starting new programs or ending old ones.
The defense budget for fiscal year 2017 has cleared the House but has not been voted on by the Senate, creating uncertainty among top military officials, said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
The House passed a $578 billion defense spending bill in March for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1. But the Senate has yet to act on the legislation. Lawmakers also haven’t addressed a $30 billion supplement to the 2017 budget that President Donald Trump requested last month. The temporary governmentwide spending bill approved late last year runs out April 28.
The service chiefs warned the committee of the impact of going a full year without a regular budget. They described Wednesday how they are forced to move money from their weapons modernization and training accounts to pay for current missions.
Army Gen. Mark A. Milley told committee members that a continuing resolution for military spending will grind training to a halt by July, leaving individual soldiers and units less prepared.
“The ultimate impact [of budget restrictions] is cumulative and leads to lost battles and dead soldiers on a battlefield,” Milley said, invoking moments in military history, such as the defeat of Allied forces at the Battle of Kasserine Pass during World War II, to paint a vivid picture of the consequences of poor readiness.
He said uncertainty in spending will halt plans to increase troop end strength and reduce training rotations designed to prepare units for combat.
The next Stryker brigade to deploy to Europe for Operation Atlantic Resolve, for instance, will potentially deploy without rotating through the National Training Center to prepare for operations meant to deter Russian aggression, Milley said.
“The gas, the parts, the ammunition. That ceases,” he said. “We’re going to be putting young men and women in harm’s way that are not ready for that level of combat.”
Navy Adm. John M. Richardson raised alarms about his service’s capability to defend against today’s threats while preparing for future conflict. “We have not had sufficient resources to maintain the fleet at current levels of operational tempo, to modernize it to adequately address evolving threats, and to invest in new capabilities to maintain an edge into the future,” Richardson said. “Our competitors are gaining on us, and our advantage is shrinking.”
Richardson said he needs an additional $2.1 billion beyond what is earmarked for the Navy in the 2017 budget.
“Without it, three ships scheduled to deploy to Europe and the Middle East will stay home, our pilots will not fly and their jets will sit on the ramp needing maintenance,” he said.
The services zeroed in on shortfalls of cyber capabilities in a budget crunch while China and Russia built and unleash sophisticated operations against the United States.
Marine Gen. Robert B. Neller offered a blunt assessment of the challenges the Marine Corps faces in retaining highly trained cyberwarfare troops as private security companies offer big paychecks to lure their skills. He recalled a conversation with a cyber-trained Marine about the six-figure offers floating around the industry.
“How are you going to afford to keep me?” The Marine asked Neller, who suggested hefty bonuses were the answer to retention.
“We’ll have to treat cyber like special operations,” Neller said. “Once you’re in, you’re in.”
If the continuing resolution proceeds, the Army National Guard cannot field cyber production teams or continue necessary training for today’s high-threat environments, Milley said, and further budget shortfalls will negatively affect recruitment.
“We need to continue the momentum” of recruitment, he said. “A continuing resolution will stop momentum in its tracks.”
Air Force Gen. David L. Goldfein said retaining talent remains a top concern, with a shortage of active-duty fighter pilots to exceed 1,000 by the end of the fiscal year.
It costs $11 million to produce a fifth-generation fighter pilot, Goldfein said, and a continuing resolution would choke bonuses pilots are looking for as commercial airlines seek out their talent with big salaries.
A continuing resolution would also stop training at Nellis Air Force Base for airmen preparing for combat missions.
“We just go less ready,” he said, recalling his training vital preparation for air combat during the Gulf War that led to increased confidence in his squadron.
Milley and Richardson also raised the issue of critical shortages of munitions stocks. The Navy needs to replenish the guided munitions used to destroy targets in the ongoing campaign against Islamic State. Milley said the Army makes and distributes bombs for all the other services, and budget shortfalls will limit his ability to make deliveries.
Nellis Air Force Base “won’t have bombs to drop” in training by this summer, Milley said. Goldfein added, with the exception of units readying for deployments, Nellis would essentially become a “no-fly zone” with grounded flights.
Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., a former A-10 pilot, pointed out the harm of keeping airmen out of the sky, particularly crewmembers of the EC-130, an electronic warfare aircraft that uses sophisticated equipment to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance of enemy communications.
“You’re a thousand pilots short, and you’re grounding pilots, and we’re expecting them to stay. That’s insane. Do you agree?” McSally asked Goldfein.
“Yes ma’am,” Goldfein replied.
Stars and Stripes reporter Tara Copp and The Associated Press contributed to this report.