By John T. Bennett
The Pentagon’s top generals continue sending mixed messages about the impacts of pending military spending cuts.
The latest instance of the service chiefs’ uneven talking points came during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last Thursday. The chiefs at times said changing the schedule of the cuts would make them mostly manageable. At other times, they warned more cuts will automatically lead to more dead and injured American troops.
The seeming disconnect, however, went unnoticed by members of the so-called oversight committee sitting just a few feet away.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-Colo., asked the service chiefs if they would welcome the ability to decide what gets cut under sequestration.
Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh responded senior military officials would welcome the added authority, saying it would help blunt the force sequestration’s punch.
“This mechanism that makes us take big chunks of money the first two years is what is putting us into this readiness versus modernization dilemma,” Welsh said. “The overall cost of sequestration reduces our capability and capacity over time, but it doesn’t break us. The mechanism is what breaks us.
“And so I would just say that if we had the trust available to believe that the department would return $1.3 trillion over 10 years,” Welsh said, “and we could show you a plan of how to do that, eliminating this abrupt nature of the mechanism at the front end, would be a much, much more sensible approach.”
Under sequestration, all non-exempt defense and domestic accounts are slashed by around 9 percent to 10 percent, according to budget analysts. This is done without factoring in strategic needs or spending priorities, which Pentagon brass and congressional hawks say undermines national security and hurts the industrial base.
Welsh was not alone in the idea, which is again a hot topic on Capitol Hill, of Congress giving the Pentagon the ability to decide what gets whacked.
Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno wrapped his endorsement of the idea in nuance, but he made clear the authority would help.
“Senator, it depends on how you define flexibility. If you’re saying flexibility within each budget year, it helps a little bit. But in my mind it helps just around the fringes. It’s probably different for every service,” he told Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind.”What we need is flexibility across the whole sequester action. As was — as Gen. Welsh, I think, mentioned earlier, that’s what’s helpful because — because the front-loaded nature of it, it throws us off skew of how we sustain our balance.
“So if you gave us year-to-year flexibility, there’s some things we can do,” Odierno said. “But in my mind, that’s only around the edges and doesn’t really solve the problem.”
The chiefs seemed to be echoing their boss, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who two days earlier during a speech at a Washington think tank said even with sequestration, the U.S. military remains the world’s most powerful.
“Even as we deal with new budgetary constraints on defense spending, the United States will continue to represent nearly 40 percent of global defense expenditures,” Hagel said, “and most of the world’s other leading military powers are America’s close allies.”
Hagel’s we-will-find-a-way rhetoric on the cuts — planned Pentagon spending is slated to drop by $450 billion through 2021 unless a big deficit-cutting deal is enacted — was striking because it is a stark change from the “doomsday” rhetoric of his predecessor, Leon Panetta.
But perhaps more striking was the difference in Hagel’s message and that of the military chiefs.
Short of some kind of legislative adjustment to how the cuts are administered, the chiefs said — without providing an ounce of supporting data — one thing is certain: More American troops will die than if the sequester cuts are lessened or totally done away with.
Here was Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos:
“We will have fewer forces arriving less-trained, arriving later to the fight. This would delay the buildup of combat power, allow the enemy more time to build its defenses, and would likely prolong combat operations altogether. This is a formula for more American casualties. We only need to look to 1950 and the onset of the Korean War to see the hazard and the fallacy in this approach.”
Odierno was a tad more cautious, but also offered that formula of sequestration equals casualties:
“So for us it is significant readiness issues. We will not be able to train them for the mission they’re gonna have to do. We will have to send them without the proper training and — and actually maybe proper equipment that they need in order to do this. So that always relates to potentially higher casualties if we have to respond.”
Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, got in on the act too, saying less training will mean an increased number of dead and wounded Americans if and when the military goes to war during the sequestration era:
“So you have to be there with confident and proficient people. And if they’re not confident and proficient, then you’re talking more casualties, and you have to keep apace with the capabilities of the future or you’re unable to deal with a potential adversary. And that’s increased casualties.
“So we will … be slipping behind in capability, reduced force structure and reduced contingency response. If we’re not there, then somebody is out there, and they’re gonna have increased casualties.”
The leaders of the American ground forces later were again asked about the effects of the automatic cuts.
“We are headed towards a force in not too many years that will be hollow back home and not ready to deploy,” Amos said. “And if they do deploy, they will enter harm’s way, we’ll end up with more casualties.”
The Army chief told the Senate panel “what I worry about is in the end, the weight of those assumptions are not going to be on me, it’s going to be on our soldiers, our young men and women asked to do a mission that they simply do not have the capability and quantity of capability to accomplish, and it results in more casualties.”
To be fair, it will be Amos’ and Odierno’s amphibious and ground troopers most at risk any time the U.S. military fights a major conflict. But it’s notable that not one member of the Senate oversight committee asked the chiefs for data to support their claims.