Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks April 16 with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey on Capitol Hill before their testimony before the House Defense Subcommittee hearing on the Defense Department's fiscal 2014 budget. (Jose Luis Magana / AP)
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WASHINGTON — Pentagon leaders and House appropriators on Tuesday discussed China, then Egypt. They talked about aircraft carrier deployments, Iran and sexual assault. One issue was a glaring afterthought: Sequestration.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, departed from months of gloomy warnings about the effects of the 10-year, $500 billion sequestration cut by telling the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee that the Pentagon's 2014 budget request would keep the force “in balance.”
Dempsey did say sequestration will create “uncertainty” about the Pentagon's annual budget amount unless it is turned off by a big fiscal deal. He mentioned training cancellation across the armed services and warned of decreased readiness.
Some panel members mentioned the sequestration cuts directly and indirectly.
But notably, for the first time since late summer 2011, a sitting defense secretary and Joint Chiefs chairman appeared before a congressional appropriations panel and mostly were peppered with questions about other issues.
The focus of the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee reinforces a comment House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith made last Friday. Smith said he is concerned there is a lack of urgency about turning off the across-the-board sequester cuts among House members.
Smith wants to replace the sequester cuts with the kind of plan — built around tax hikes, entitlement program reforms and other federal cuts — proposed by the Obama administration in its $3.8 trillion 2014 budget blueprint.
On the other side of the Capitol complex, Democratic and Republican senators say they continue to talk across the aisle about a broad fiscal package that would enact additional deficit-reduction measures while replacing the sequester cuts. President Barack Obama has been courting Senate Republicans in pursuit of such a bill for several months.
Among the issues Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were asked about Tuesday was the military's recent decision to save monies by deploying only one aircraft carrier strike group to the Middle East.
“We've had to make tough choices,” Hagel said. He described the fundamental question Pentagon officials had to answer before opting against deploying a second carrier in that volatile region: “Is this something you can tell us we're still OK ... and can [combat] an Iranian provocation?”
Dempsey added that the Navy saved tens of millions of dollars in deciding against deploying the carrier strike group, funds it intends to use to avoid grounding some aircraft, among other things.
To meet sequestration's funding caps, Pentagon brass must search out savings within the budget, the chairman said. And that means not doing some things the military has been doing. “We've got to find it wherever we can find it,” Dempsey said of budgetary savings.
Tension with Iran over its nuclear-arms program is the most pressing reason some want two U.S. carrier strike groups in the Middle East.
To that end, Hagel said any decision to strike Tehran's nuclear facilities or other targets would be Obama's.
But Hagel indicated the military is “prepared to back up whatever decision (the) president might have to make in fulfilling whatever commitment we might have to make.”
Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the full House Appropriations Committee, questioned Hagel and Dempsey about what he deemed “hack attacks” in cyberspace launched by China.
Rogers went so far as to charge that Chinese officials “have stolen some of our weaponry ... including the F-35.”
Hagel said U.S. officials continue to address such potential cyber intrusions when they meet with their Chinese counterparts. And he noted, “Cyber is one of the areas in budget where we have proposed increase —more people, more capacity.”
Asked about a GOP-pushed East Coast missile defense system, Hagel said a congressionally mandated study should be concluded by the end of this year.
That study is expected to identify potential locations for the proposed system, which would still need congressional approval. But Dempsey said of such recommendations, “We're not there yet.”