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Winnefeld: Budget Uncertainty Deepens ‘Readiness Hole’

By Karen Parrish
WASHINGTON — Determining defense spending plans is a matter of balancing ways, means and ends; with budget “means” uncertain for years now, the “ways” of maintaining a strategy-based, dominant military force must not be closed off, Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a House panel today. 

Testifying with Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter before the House Armed Services Committee, Winnefeld said the Pentagon’s Strategic Choices and Management Review, results of which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel discussed during a news conference here yesterday, made clear that readiness consequences will be dire if sequester continues. 

Winnefeld cautioned committee members that the “readiness hole” created this fiscal year by cuts mandated under the 2011 Budget Control Act will deepen to “the chasm of what we call sequester forever” if factors don’t change. 

The review was collaborative, exhaustive and painful, Winnefeld said. While critical questions loom about next fiscal year’s funding and yet more sequester-imposed cuts, he said, the current budget crisis is already giving rise to the conditions that will hamper next year’s operations. 

The admiral noted fiscal year 2013 sequester cuts have grounded planes, cut training and kept ships in port, while cutting hours and paychecks for more than half-a-million civilian defense workers. 

“Imagine trying to be in a swimming race where you have lead weights on your legs and starting that race when you're already out of breath,” Winnefeld said. “That's the situation we will be facing in [fiscal year] '14. And this is a real problem that's getting worse every day and we ignore it at our peril.” 

Winnefeld reinforced a point Hagel stressed yesterday, which is that no decisions have been made; the review was designed to tee up choices. 

“No decisions have been made because they cannot yet be made, because we don't know how much money we're going to have,” the vice chairman said. “And we don't know when we're going to know how much money we're going to have, and we don't know what the rules are going to be when we find out. And so it's very hard to produce a strategy when one leg of the ends, ways and means stool is so uncertain.” 

Winnefeld noted that Congress, in its oversight role, also sets the “means.” Legislation can offer some flexibility in spending allocations -- or it can create roadblocks. He said Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “shares my concern that as members begin to understand what these cuts mean in real terms, we'll end up with legislation or amendments that foreclose bit-by-bit the leverage [we] need to shape this force strategically. … And we're already seeing this.”

Such limits “funnel us in” to the only thing left, Winnefeld added, which is readiness.

Winnefeld said that readiness, the tempo of training and maintenance that keeps a force honed, “really has no constituency other than the young soldier, sailor, airman or Marine putting his or her life on the line for our nation's security interests.”

Any further deepening of the readiness hole would be “truly shameful,” the admiral said. He asked the committee members to allow fund reallocations, called reprogramming, “so we can shape the force strategically, allow us to make needed but fair adjustments to the way we compensate our people, and allow us to shed unnecessary structure and infrastructure.”

A compromise with Congress that allows Pentagon and service leaders to reduce their numbers and infrastructure in a thoughtful, considered way “can help fix this by … [changing] the magnitude, the profile and the mechanism of these cuts, and avoids a destructive continuing resolution with the sequester mechanism riding on top of it,” Winnefeld said. 

DOD faces enough uncertainty protecting the nation and its allies from a world full of rising risks, he said.

“We need your help in removing the risk of the financial uncertainty that faces your department. It's the least we can do for the magnificent young men and women who stand on the front lines for our nation and who, no matter what happens, will always strive, supported by our fabulous DOD civilians, to remain the finest fighting force in the world,” Winnefeld said. 

“We stand ready to support you with whatever information you need to get this done,” he added.