By Ernesto Londoño and Lisa Rein
After staying largely on the sidelines of the debate over deficit reduction, the U.S. military’s service leaders have begun painting a stark picture of the toll a congressionally mandated budget cut could take on the readiness of the world’s largest armed forces.
The $46 billion dent to the Pentagon’s fiscal 2013 budget, long considered by the brass as nothing more than a political pawn, has taken on an air of inevitability, forcing commanders across the military to plan for painful reductions and argue that American lives and livelihoods are hanging in the balance.
Injecting ominous warnings about national security into policy debates has in the past snapped elected leaders into action, but there is no sign that Republicans and the White House are close to compromising on a more measured approach to reducing the deficit. Some lawmakers and analysts have dismissed the caution as posturing by a force reluctant to shrink too much in a postwar era.
In response, the military’s service chiefs are amplifying the months-long warnings of Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and others and providing what they have described as the specific and serious consequences of the across-the-board cuts.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, recently warned that the cuts may curtail training for 80 percent of ground forces, including some in the deployment pipeline, forcing him to extend the deployments of troops already in Afghanistan.
Facing a $8.6 billion shortfall, the Navy has delayed the deployment of the USS Harry Truman, leaving just one aircraft carrier instead of two in the Persian Gulf, where tensions continue with Iran. The budget crunch also will mean delays for repairs of a carrier and the construction of another.
The Air Force has warned that slashing $12.4 billion from its budget for the remainder of the fiscal year would require cutting 200,000 flying hours. That means that by May, two-thirds of the force’s pilots would “drop below acceptable level of readiness,” Air Force chief Mark Welsh told lawmakers recently.
After holding out hope for a compromise, Pentagon civilians were startled Wednesday when Panetta notified 800,000 employees that they might face a 20 percent pay cut if furloughs are implemented starting in April. Although the payroll for uniformed personnel is spared, the threat of extended deployments has confounded troops in Afghanistan.
“It’s like I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop,” said one service member there, Maj. Dustin Navarro, 31. “I’d rather have higher taxes and fewer base resources at home than have this kind of uncertainty while deployed.”
With cuts set to begin March 1, Odierno said in a speech last Friday that the Army is scrambling to find up to $24 billion in reductions for the last seven months of the fiscal year. The shortfall will affect training, he said, presenting a thankless choice between sending untrained troops to Afghanistan and keeping certain units there months beyond their exit dates. American lives are at stake, he warned.
“It is our responsibility to ensure that we never send soldiers into harm’s way that are not trained, equipped, well-led and ready for any contingency, to include war,” Odierno told lawmakers last week. “If we have to reduce the amount of training we give our pilots, they will go in with a hell of a lot less capability. That means mistakes will be made. That means we’ll have accidents. That means we’ll be more likely to be shot down by enemy fire.”
Some lawmakers have reacted apologetically to the predictions of a dangerous drop in readiness. But other lawmakers and analysts say the Pentagon’s doomsday predictions have a measure of hyperbole and might be, at least in part, an attempt to protect budgets and programs as the war in Afghanistan draws to an end.
“Across-the-board cuts are bad policy,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), one of 22 Congress members from both parties who wrote to President Obama and congressional leaders arguing that defense spending should be part of any debt-reduction deal. “At the end of the day, if cuts are going to be made, the military cannot be spared.”
Anthony Shaffer, a senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, said he was skeptical of the dire predictions about readiness.
“A lot of us who look at this hard say it’s disingenuous to say, ‘We can’t deploy the Truman because the money’s not there,’ ” said Shaffer, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official. “This is all political theater. It’s being prompted by those in the Pentagon who do not want to make hard choices and cut back.”
Among the most striking examples in a country where most people pledge steadfast support for the troops, Odierno warned that some might have to do without air conditioning later in the year at bases nationwide. But the cuts also probably would have consequences for U.S. forces overseas — Panetta planned to warn NATO defense chiefs during a two-day meeting that began Thursday in Brussels that the belt-tightening could impair the United States’ ability to pay its bills to the alliance and to participate in alliance programs.
Few members meet NATO’s defense spending target of 2 percent of gross domestic product. In recent weeks, the Obama administration has warned allies with their own economic problems, including NATO stalwarts such as Britain and France, that significant cuts would undermine its arguments to Congress on the need to support defense spending.
“What is particularly tragic to me is that sequestration is not the result of an economic recession or emergency,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the House Armed Services Committee last week, using the term for the automatic cuts. “It’s not in reaction to a more peaceful world. All this is purely the collateral damage of political gridlock.”
Pentagon contractors are making preemptive moves that could affect thousands of employees. BAE Systems Ship Repair, a major defense contractor, issued layoff warnings this week to 3,500 shipyard workers — including 1,600 in Virginia’s Hampton Roads area — who could lose their jobs if the Navy puts ship maintenance on hold. The Navy told BAE that it plans to cancel or defer maintenance and upgrades on 13 destroyers and cruisers the company is contracted to work on.
“We regret the anxiety [this] causes our employees and their families,” BAE Systems President Bill Clifford said in the letter that warned of layoffs.
The potential cuts are creating anxiety in Hampton Roads, where 40,000 people work in shipbuilding and repair.
“Once these availabilities are missed, they can’t be made up,” said Tom Taylor, the owner of MF&B Marine in Chesapeake, a small ship-repair company in Hampton Roads, referring to contracts.
Taylor said he fears he might have to lay off some of his 46 employees as he waits to see whether the Navy will lock in plans to cancel or delay billions of dollars more in ship maintenance and repairs.
“There’s no HR department I can send them to,” he said. “I’ve got to look them in the face and tell them they’re out of a job. If we’re going to have a smaller defense, fine, but this is nothing but politics. How can a ship go to sea without its capability?”