The U.S. military’s gloomy future came into clearer focus Wednesday when the four service chiefs testified on Capitol Hill about the long-term impact of defense spending caps on the force, including troop cuts, deployment-to-dwell times and cutbacks to worldwide operations.
It was the first time the top four-stars have testified since Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in July unveiled the results of the Pentagon’s Strategic Choices and Management Review, designed to be a blueprint for how the Defense Department can absorb the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration over the next decade.
The chiefs unanimously agreed that the budget cuts will render them unable to meet the demands of the national security strategy drawn up just last year. That called for a strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific region and less preparation for troop-intensive stability operations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For the Army and Marine Corps, the budget cuts mean the forces will shrink significantly and raise concerns about their readiness for a crisis calling for boots on the ground. The Navy likely will have fewer aircraft carrier strike groups ready for deployment overseas. And for the Air Force, the budget cuts will mean a new round of cuts for airmen, aircraft squadrons and perhaps mothballing entire aircraft platforms.
The details came with the now-familiar and dire warnings about the dangers of sequestration cuts, which amount to a roughly 10 percent drop from the Pentagon’s 2012 spending levels.
'I simply cannot afford a force that size'
“These reductions will put at substantial risk our ability to conduct even one sustained major combat operation,” Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, told the House Armed Service Committee.
Specifically, Odierno disclosed details of the planned drawdown and cutbacks in readiness. The active-duty Army will have to fall to “no more than 420,000” soldiers during the next decade, down from a wartime peak of 570,000. In the long run, the Army may have to eliminate nearly half of its 45 Brigade Combat Teams. By next year, canceled training exercises will render 85 percent of Army brigade combat teams unprepared for a combat deployments.
Many of the budget cuts that the Pentagon is imposing on the services are based in part on the premise that the military will be able to avoid any long-term, ground-based conflicts like those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Odierno criticized the recent strategic review as unfair to the Army, saying it involved “rosy assumptions” that “were really put in there so we could say we need a smaller Army. And that’s concerning to me.”
For the Marine Corps, the budget cuts will force the Corps to shrink below last year’s plans for a force of 182,000 Marines. “Based on sequestration, I simply cannot afford a force that size,” Marine Commandant Gen. Jim Amos told lawmakers.
Amos said “a force of 174,000 Marines is the smallest force that can meet mission requirements. This is a force with levels of risk that are minimally acceptable.”
That would require forcing Marines into a operational cycle with a deployment-to-dwell ratio of 1:2, meaning Marine units would deploy for six months, be home for 12 months and deploy again for six months in a continuous cycle. Over the next several years, the Marine Corps will shed 11 combat arms battalions and 14 aircraft, Amos said.
“This is a single Marine major-contingency-operation force that would deploy and fight until the war’s end. In other words, we would come home when the war was over,” Amos said.
For the Navy, the budget cuts will affect the carrier fleet and its attendant strike group fleets and aircraft squadrons. The Navy will continue to maintain a single deployed carrier strike group presence in the Pacific and one in the Middle East region.
But sending out additional carriers — as the Navy has in recent weeks in response to the Syria crisis — is becoming difficult.
“What do we have to surge? It’s getting less and less, and I’m very concerned about it. Today one carrier strike group, one amphibious-ready group is ready to surge with their organized training equipment. Normally ... we have three,” said Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations.
Greenert did not specifically address Hagel’s suggestion in July that the Navy may have to shrink today’s fleet of 11 carriers to potentially eight, a move that would dramatically and permanently reduce the Navy’s operational tempo and eliminate the need for many of the destroyers, fighter squadrons and other support units typically attached to carrier strike groups.
He said the surface fleet likely will have to fall toward about 255 ships, about 30 less than today’s total fleet and far lower than the 306 that is the Navy’s official target for its shipbuilding program.
Greenert said one of his biggest concerns about the budget cuts is their impact on the Navy’s ability to develop a replacement for the Ohio-class ballistic submarines, a key component of the nation’s nuclear arsenal. That program to build new ones, the so-called SSBN(X), may be unaffordable under current budget levels, he said.
For the Air Force, the budget cuts will mean slashing about 25,000 airmen, or about 4 percent of the force. About 550 aircraft will have to be cut, and just shaving a fraction from each existing fleet is not a good option. To find substantial savings, the Air Force will have to consider eliminating entire fleets of individual aircraft and the maintenance, logistics and administrative overhead that go with them.
“We’ll be forced to divest entire fleets of aircraft. We can’t do it by cutting a few aircraft from each fleet,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh.
Specifically on the chopping block are the A-10 Warthogs, which in Iraq and Afghanistan were among the workhorses providing ground troops with close-air support.
Lawmakers questioned why the Air Force would get rid of a plane that has been so useful in recent years while preserving other platforms that are rarely, if ever, used in combat. Welsh acknowledged the A-10’s effectiveness, but said it has a narrow focus and is costly to maintain compared to other, more versatile aircraft that could do that same job along with others.
“I love the airplane. I have a thousand hours flying it. It is the best airplane in the world at what it does. It is not the best at a lot of other things,” Welsh said.
Roadblocks from Congress
The budget cuts will be imposed across the military unless Congress reaches a new agreement that likely would involve raising taxes and reducing Social Security and Medicare benefits.
The impact of the cuts on force levels, readiness and weapons systems is intensified by the Pentagon’s inability to reduce costs in other areas. Hagel and several of his predecessors have called for substantial reductions in military pay and benefits as well as base closures. Yet those require approval from Congress, which has displayed no interest in approving those politically sensitive measures.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said Congress’s inability to make hard decisions is making the Pentagon’s challenge more difficult.
“You are, to some degree, reliant upon us for a number of those decisions,” Smith told the service chiefs. “Personnel costs are an enormous part of what you face, but if you want to do anything with retirement or anything with health care, you have to come through us. And about the only clear message that Congress has sent you is, ‘Don’t cut that.’
“If you gentlemen tell us, ‘Hey, look, here’s where we need to cut,’ and if any member of this committee says, ‘Oh, we can’t do that,’ well, then [we should ask that member] ‘Where do you want to cut?’ ” Smith said. “I hope we can have that discussion.”
Lower readiness levels will present the nation’s decision makers with a gut-wrenching choice in a crisis — risk the nation’s security by not deploying military units, or put military units at risk by deploying them before they are properly trained and equipped.
“My biggest fear, actually what keeps me up at night is: I’m asked to deploy soldiers on some unknown contingency and they are not ready,” Odierno said.