Every leader in the Pentagon has been warning for more than a year that if sequestration comes to pass the impact to the military will be severe. But the armed services’ most senior officers now are telling Congress those impacts are not a distant prospect — they could be looking at a “hollowed-out” force within a matter of months after the cuts are triggered.
When the Defense Department directed the military services last month to start conserving funds, it was a good sign that the Pentagon now believes the long-threatened automatic budget cuts actually will take place. Ashton Carter, the deputy secretary of Defense, gave weight to that view last week when he acknowledged in an interview with Bloomberg that sequestration now appears “more likely than unlikely.”
But the military’s leadership is pressing hard to make sure Congress understands its point of view on what sequestration would actually mean should it take effect midway through a fiscal year in which a DoD budget still has not been enacted.
A letter to lawmakers, signed by each member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, opened with the admonition that “the readiness of our armed forces is at a tipping point. We are on the brink.”
“We don’t sign 28-star letters very often,” Adm. James Winnefeld, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told an AFCEA convention in San Diego last week. “We did it because we are at serious risk of rapidly sliding into a hollow force.”
“The world as we know it will end”
Robert Work, the undersecretary of the Navy, told the same conference that the prospect of forces being unprepared to deploy is a near-term problem and that once the shortcomings in readiness begin to emerge, Congress won’t be able to simply rely on allies in NATO and elsewhere to pick up the slack. “If we have support from our allies that will be good. But Congress requires the Navy-Marine Corps team to be organized, trained and equipped to win our nation’s wars, and we will need a fleet of about 300 ships to do that. Those ships have to be of the right type, they have to be properly manned, they have to be properly equipped, they have to have the right maintenance and every damn dollar you keep taking out of our pocket makes it harder for us to do it,” Work said. “If you execute sequestration, the world as we know it will end. We will not have a ready Navy or Marine Corps by the end of this fiscal year. If we have a year-long continuing resolution and sequestration triggers with no ability to shift money, we will have a hollow Navy-Marine Corps team by the end of this fiscal year. It truly is kind of the worst thing imaginable.”
Most of the near-term problems the military services face revolve around their operation and maintenance budgets. While sequestration would pare back all Pentagon programs and projects by an equal amount, reductions to acquisition or research and development programs won’t create immediate crises for the military, even while they cause longer-run harm to the industrial base and cause procurements to be canceled, take longer or cost more money.
In the operating accounts, though, DoD would suddenly have huge shortfalls in the cash it has available to train troops, buy supplies, fix ships and airplanes, and pay civilian employees. Those are must-pay bills in the current year, Winnefeld said.
“Part of our challenge is that we can’t spread readiness cuts like peanut butter. We have to keep units deploying to our current fight in Afghanistan and for certain other missions at the very sharpest possible edge of readiness. That means the rest of our units will be disproportionately affected,” he said. “I know how this feels. I had to shut down my F-14 squadron for three months back in 1994 when we went through a similar crisis, and we had to work very hard at the end of that three months to get our readiness back. It’s something I don’t want our force to ever have to go through again.”
New authorities needed
But if current law holds, Winnefeld claims that’s, inevitably, where the military is headed.
“Army brigade combat teams, as one example, are looking to lose at least 30 percent of their readiness capability this year and you can’t deploy like that,” he said. “This means that we’ll only be able to respond to the conflicts that we’re in and respond to only the highest of the high national security interests. There could be, for the first time in my career, instances where we’re asked to respond to a crisis and we would have to say we cannot.”
The Pentagon, like the rest of government, has no enacted budget for the remainder of this year. It’s operating on a temporary, auto-pilot version of the spending approval it got the year before and, so far, it doesn’t have the authority to move money from low priorities to high priorities.
So, it’s already planning to cancel all aircraft and ship maintenance in the third and fourth quarter of this year in an effort to conserve cash. The military services already are cutting back on training for military members who are not next in line to deploy overseas.
“It may initially seem like we’re crying wolf on this, because, for example, carriers are still going to deploy in the near future. We may not see the global impact of this until late this year because the forces deploying the soonest are already ready and they can go,” he said. “But there are many forces that won’t be able to start their training now, so they will be sidelined, grounded, tied to the pier and they will not be able to deploy if we don’t have the proper resources to make them ready to go.”
25 percent more from IT budget
With the limited amount of room the military services have to maneuver within their operating budgets, any spending that’s not directly tied to immediate warfighting is not on the priority list. Terry Halvorsen, the Navy Department’s chief information officer, is looking for ways to handle a 25 percent reduction in Navy and Marine Corps IT spending in the remainder of 2013. That’s on top of a 2011 mandate to reduce “business IT” spending by the same percentage over five years.
The Navy declined requests for an interview with a member of its IT leadership to discuss its plans to implement the cut, but Halvorsen told the San Diego gathering last week that wherever the IT slicing happens, the results will not be pretty.
“We’re going to make some very short-term decisions that are not going to be good in the long term. It’s an ugly way to put it, but I need some help from industry in figuring out how to make the least dumb decisions quicker,” he said. “It is where we’re at. We’re going to do some things in the short-term that don’t make sense and they’re going to have long-term consequences. You wouldn’t make these decisions in any other financial condition, but we’re going to do them today. How do we do that?”
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-8 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.