The billions of dollars in defense budget cuts scheduled to begin at the end of the week will have a swift and severe impact on military readiness and Congress needs to take fast action to stop them, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Tuesday in an 11th-hour bid to keep the reductions from going into effect.
Testifying before the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, the five uniformed leaders of the military branches described how national security would be at risk if they are forced to make deep decreases in spending for personnel, training, and equipment modernization programs.
Their appearance marks the fourth time in the last three weeks that top Pentagon leaders have testified before a congressional oversight committee. Their warnings of a looming crisis haven’t changed, but the pending deadline has made them more urgent.
“If we do not have the resources to train and equip the force, our young men and women will pay the price, potentially with their lives,” said Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff.
Despite the dire predictions, many of the cuts to hit the Defense Department and other federal agencies would come in later years and could be partially offset by cuts in programs that are wasteful or behind schedule.
The automatic cuts, known as a sequester, are scheduled to begin March 1. The Pentagon faces a $46 billion budget reduction through the end of September, and additional cuts would come in future years as long as the sequester remains in effect. The military also has to absorb a $487 billion reduction in spending over the next 10 years.
The military’s fiscal challenges are further complicated by the lack of a budget for the current fiscal year, according to defense officials. Congress hasn’t approved one. Instead, lawmakers have been passing bills called continuing resolutions, which keep spending levels at last year’s rates. That means the Pentagon is operating on less money than planned, compounding the financial problem facing the armed forces.
The main problem with the sequester is not the size of the cuts to the defense budget, but rather the across-the-board way they are administered, according to Todd Harrison of the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.
The military has very little flexibility under the law to make smart spending reductions, he said. “High-priority, successful programs must be cut by the same percentage as wasteful, redundant, and low-priority programs,” Harrison said.
Yet even with the sequester, the Pentagon will still maintain an annual budget, adjusted for inflation, of well over $500 billion a year for the rest of the decade. That’s a modest reduction when compared to the previous drawdowns in defense spending that came after the wars in Korea and Vietnam and the Cold War, Harrison said.
Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, told the defense subcommittee that the sequester combined with the lack of a 2013 defense budget will have a “devastating impact” on military readiness and create “unacceptable levels of risk” to the U.S. national security strategy.