Even if Congress finds a way to avoid sequestration, the Pentagon will still have to downsize, said Army Under Secretary Joseph Westphal.
“I think we all realize that as our combat operations slow down and come to an end eventually, that everything we’ve done to grow our defense system to address these combat operations will have to change,” Westphal said in an interview on Pentagon Solutions with Francis Rose.
The Budget Control Act passed a year ago makes automatic, across-the-board cuts worth $1.2 trillion during the next decade and take effect in January. This process, also called sequestration, would make half of those cuts to DoD spending. The sequestration cuts would be “devastating,” Westphal said, particularly to an already-shrinking DoD. The sequestration cuts would be in addition to DoD’s $487 billion in previously-planned cuts during the same time period.
But unless the legislative branch finds a way to avert the cuts, the DoD must comply with it, he said.
“This is a big ship called the Department of Defense, and it’s hard to turn that ship so quickly. So, it’s not a matter of unwillingness. It’s a matter of, do we have enough time to make the reductions in such a fast time slot that we can do it in a way that doesn’t undermine security of this country?” Westphal said.
Last week, officials from the Office of Management and Budget and the Pentagon said they were beginning to develop fallback plans in case sequestration does go into effect — although details of these plans and which programs would be affected are sketchy.
“I was asked by some of my budgeters whether we should put a dollar sign in the budget for BRAC, and I told them not to waste their time. We had to put it forward, have to make the argument. But I understand why it’s so tough [for Congress]. But it’s an important debate we have to have, and frankly, it’s not going away,” Panetta said.
The Army just finished a “very big BRAC” — or base realignment and closure, so the service does not have many surplus installations, Westphal said.
However, the circumstances could be different with the other services, he added.
When it comes to the timing of BRAC, Westphal said, “I think it’s a matter of fine-tuning this and working with Congress when it is comfortable with a [BRAC] commission,” he said. Westphal expanded on Panetta’s comment that the timing was not right for another round of BRAC next year.
“I think what the secretary is reflecting is that the politics of the day, we’re in an election year, we’ll be soon in a post-election year,” Westphal said.
Often, it takes at least a year to put together a BRAC commission, Westphal said.
“But eventually there will be something to reduce some of the costs of this pretty large infrastructure that we have,” he said.
The Army is in the midst of cutting 8,700 civilian positions by this October. The uniformed workforce is also downsizing “significantly” and the Army will “probably see some further reduction on the reserve component,” Westphal said.
At the same time, one area of potential workforce growth is in the area of mental health as the department increasingly recognizes the need to get rid of the stigma and treat post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
“PTSD or traumatic brain injury, although you can’t see them, is no different from a gunshot wound. If you have a gunshot wound, you’re not going to say, ‘No, I need to be in the front lines, no matter what,'” Westphal said.
The impact of the overall workforce shrinkage will be more competition to rise up the ranks.
“You’re going to be competing with more highly qualified majors to become a lieutenant colonel and lieutenant colonels to become a colonel. But it’s going to become more of a premium and it’s going to become more important to be better and to be great at what you do, and that’s important to the country to have the best military possible,” he said.
Westphal also said he worries that younger people will not want to join the service. “If you hear a lot of dialogue coming out of this city, it will be hard to be attracted to government service,” he said.
Cutbacks must be done with a “great sensitivity to timing,” he said. He advocates reducing the force through attrition and once the economy has bounced back.
“Nobody wants to see across-the-board cuts. Nobody wants to see reductions in the workforce that don’t make sense in terms of the responsibilities that we have, and that’s both on the contractor side as well as the civilian said,” Westphal said.