The Pentagon is maintaining a fiscal balancing act that must eventually teeter into a potentially dangerous loss of combat power if Congress doesn’t act to stabilize defense budgets, department leaders told the Senate Budget Committee today.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, each named fiscal uncertainty as the greatest enemy to effective military planning. In the face of steep short-term cuts, they explained, long-term military readiness priorities take the biggest hits.
“When you're talking about … abrupt cuts without slowing the growth, then what you're really, bottom line, saying is that you're going to cut your combat power,” Hagel said. “And in the end, combat power and the readiness and everything that fits into that is … the one core asset that you must preserve and continually enhance for the future, whether it's cyber or anything else.”
Hagel noted that lacking certainty “from month to month, year to year, as to what our possibilities are for contracts for acquisitions, for technology, for research, the technological advantage that we have in the air and the superiority we have at sea, the training, the readiness, all of these are affected.”
Dempsey told senators the pace of defense spending decreases largely drives how drastic they will be.
“We've had deeper cuts. But [sequestration] is by far the steepest,” the chairman said. “And when the cut is steep, we limit the places we can go to get the money, frankly, because a lot of this money is unavailable in the short term.”
DOD is and has been reforming in many ways to cut costs and add efficiency, Dempsey said, but short-term crises soak up time and energy. “We can make long-term institutional reform, but you can't sweep it up in the near term,” he said. “That's the problem we're having.”
Dempsey and Hagel both urged senators to set clear and flexible spending limits for the department.
“Time and flexibility are absolutely key here,” Hagel said. “If we've got the flexibility and the time to bring [spending] down, we can do that. That’s manageable. And there are a lot of things that we should be doing, we can be doing, to be more efficient and still protect the interests of this country and still be the most effective fighting force.”
Hagel noted he is now studying the strategic choices in management review that Dempsey led across the department. He will be discussing the review with Congress, he said, because it will guide the fiscal year 2015 budget request going into 2014.
Dempsey said the review made some factors more clear.
“This review … allows us to see the impact of not only the president's fiscal year '14 submission, but also the Senate's plan and then full sequestration, and it does pose a series of choices which become pretty difficult,” the chairman said.
Adding the $487 billion reduction in defense spending by the Budget Control Act and the $500 billion in sequester cuts, on top of previous DOD efficiency initiatives, Dempsey noted, “comes out to about $1.2 trillion,” which he said “leaves a mark on the United States armed forces.”
“We haven't decided that it would make our current strategy unfeasible,” he added, “but it would put it at great risk and could make it unfeasible.”
Hagel said the service chiefs tell him they can match force structure with the strategic guidance, and preserve and enhance U.S. security interests around the world, given clarity on what resources they will have.
“I cannot give them that,” the secretary said. “And when I can't give them that, then we have to continually go back and adjust and adapt. … Furloughs for people are a good example of that.”
The 11-day unpaid leave most defense civilians will take between July 8 and Sept. 30 is triage, Hagel said. “It's the worst way to have to respond to anything,” he added. “But it was a necessity, and we all came to the same conclusion.”
Furloughs are only part of the cloud of uncertainty that envelops service members and the defense enterprise, Hagel told senators.
“It's very unfair to these people,” he said of furloughed civilian employees. “It's unfair to this country to … be put in that kind of a situation and then still ask these people to make the contributions they are and the sacrifices they are for this country.”