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Brass to Congress: Back off budget cliff now

Jun. 11, 2013 - 12:46PM   |  
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The Pentagon’s top leaders went to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to urge an end to the budget standoff that is likely to intensify the military’s money crunch in 2014.

“The current budget environment is requiring difficult decisions and options,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Hagel said the sequestration cuts triggered in March have forced the Army to cancel training rotations for all nondeploying units. The Air Force is standing down more than a dozen combat air squadrons. And the Navy has curtailed its deployment schedule.

Hagel was lobbying Congress to support the $526 billion military budget request that President Obama unveiled in April. But that budget essentially ignores the spending caps imposed by sequestration, which would automatically chop another $50 billion from that topline figure.

Those spending caps will not be lifted unless Congress reaches a sweeping budget agreement to reduce long-term federal spending. If no long-term deal is struck, the Pentagon budget for the fiscal year starting in October will face across-the-board cuts to keep it below the spending caps.

Continued budget cuts under sequestration appear likely. Hagel’s office recently ordered military commanders to begin back-up planning for those spending levels in the event that Congress does nothing.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Senate appropriators the military’s current reduced training regimen is akin to “training individual players on a ... basketball team, but not giving them an opportunity to scrimmage before we might put them in the game. That is a bad thing.”

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., applauded that analogy. “How good can you really be if you haven’t practiced together? That’s the question,” she said.

The long-range impact of the sequestration spending cuts on military readiness remains unclear. The Pentagon will provide lawmakers with a detailed report by July 1, Dempsey said.

The Pentagon is also asking for additional money for Afghanistan because the effort to withdraw U.S. military troops and equipment in advance of mission’s scheduled conclusion in December 2014 is costing more than expected.

That is partly due to increased transportation costs fueled by the Pakistani government’s refusal to help maintain ground-based supply lines running south from Afghanistan toward the Pakistani ports on the Gulf of Oman, said Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale, who also testified Tuesday.

Without the Pakistani supply lines, a lot of military gear must be flown out of Afghanistan or sent north across a long and costly route through Russia.

Those unexpectedly high costs for the Afghanistan war and its drawdown are a problem on par with the sequestration spending caps imposed by Capitol Hill, one lawmaker said.

“The fact is that [sequestration] is not the total cause of the shortfall in the readiness accounts and overall budget across the department; approximately a third of the shortfall is due to higher-than-anticipated war costs,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Hagel talked about the need to “preserve DoD’s world-class pay and benefits,” but he did not specifically mention the Pentagon proposal to limit the military’s active-duty pay raise in 2014 to 1 percent, a modest uptick that would mark the first time since 2000 that the annual military raise would not match average wage growth in the private sector.

Hagel urged lawmakers to agree to the Pentagon’s proposal to increase Tricare fees on working-age retirees. If lawmakers fail to raise those rates, the Defense Department will have to find that money somewhere else. Hale mentioned the possibility of having to cut force structure by as much as 25,000 people.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., expressed support for the Pentagon proposal.

“We re not going to fight our enemies with a good health care plan,” he said.

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