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Dempsey: U.S. Will Remain World Power Despite Budget ‘Mess’

By Karen Parrish
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff didn’t mince words when he spoke about the Defense Department’s fiscal challenges during a town hall gathering here today. 

“OK, the budget,” Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said. “It’s a mess. It’s just a real mess.”

Dempsey landed in Japan today on the last leg of a weeklong trip that also has taken him to South Korea and China. He spoke to an audience of several hundred, mostly airmen, minutes after landing.

This year’s budget is particularly difficult because we’re trying to absorb all these changes in the last six months of the fiscal year,” the chairman said.

“And we are generally about 80 percent spent with 50 percent of the year left,” he added. “So we have 20 percent of what we thought we’d have, to stretch ourselves out to the end of the [fiscal] year.”

Dempsey said the military will get through the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, by stretching its readiness as far as possible and being “extraordinarily careful about how we spend our money.” The services have reduced maintenance, flying hours and steaming hours, he noted.

“So we’re going to have to play some catch-up in [fiscal year 2014],” he said. “We’re working to really get our legs under ourselves in [fiscal 2015] and beyond.”

Aspects of the funding squeeze “just are heart-wrenching,” Dempsey said. He told civilian employees in the audience that he is “personally embarrassed” about “this issue of furlough [that] hangs over you.” Current Defense Department plans call for cutting 14 days from civilian employees’ work schedules and paychecks between June and the end of September. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has told the chairman and the service chiefs to “get that number [of furlough days] down as low as you can,” Dempsey said.

“And we will,” he added, noting that the challenge in doing so is getting to the end of the fiscal year with a force that is still ready. The answer, he said, is that money has to come out of modernization, maintenance, training and compensation.

During his 39 years of service, the chairman said, this is the third time he’s seen serious defense budget crunches.

“It’s a pain in the neck. … The budget’s coming back to something like a historic norm -- it’s just coming down faster than it really should,” he said. In response to a question about changes to the military retirement system, Dempsey said any changes will be “grandfathered” to exclude those currently serving. Service members have a right to expect that the promises made to them when they joined up will be kept, he said, adding, “I haven’t heard anyone waffle about that.”

Any changes to retirement will be subject to a committee or a commission’s study, he said, and will not happen quickly.

“I do think we need to change,” the chairman said. He explained that while only 17 percent of those who serve eventually retire, the Defense Department is required to set aside retirement funds for 100 percent of the force.

“That accrual fund tends to suck money off the budget every year,” he noted. While the retirement system may in the future change in a number of ways, he said, veterans associations work diligently to protect health care, compensation and retirement.

“That is their charter,” he said, “and unless we can convince them we’re actually making it better for you, we tend to be at odds with each other. … We’ve got to find a system that will be acceptable -- not only to those now serving, but to those who will serve, and that we can reconcile with the veterans support organizations.”

Manpower costs at their current level will overwhelm modernization and training, Dempsey said.

“I don’t want to be the chairman known for having taken a machete to your paycheck,” he said. “That’s not the reputation I want to have. … But I don’t want you being the most well compensated military on the planet that doesn’t train.”

Dempsey also responded to a question about whether the United States can remain a global power in light of its fiscal difficulties.

Given America’s role in maintaining open markets and access to resources, as well as assuring freedom of navigation in the sea and air domains, he said, “we can’t afford not to be the stabilizing influence that we are.”

“Although some are hoping that this budget challenge rocks us back a bit,” he added, “I think … they still want us to provide a stabilizing platform.”

The U.S. military won’t withdraw to “Fortress America,” Dempsey said, and the Defense Department has pared back its forward presence in places such as Japan, the Korean Peninsula and Europe “about as far as we can.”

Rotational deployments and other measures can help the nation’s military “accomplish almost the same thing, but with smaller force structures,” he said.

“We’re going to have to think about how to remain a global power with fewer resources, and also managing it inside of an [operational tempo] that is acceptable to you. … I’m actually quite confident we’ll be able to figure that out,” he said.

Dempsey told the troops to remember one thing: “We are going to do less with less, but not less well. That’s the commitment. … You’re still going to be the best-trained, best-equipped, best-led force on the planet.”

Dempsey’s visit to Japan will continue in the coming days, and is scheduled to include senior-level meetings and other engagements.