Defense Officials Step Up Rhetoric Against Cuts

By Sandra I. Erwin

Military leaders are launching preemptive strikes as a new round of budget battles heats up in Washington overdefense spending beyond 2015.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno fired a fresh salvo last week when he drew a hard line on force reductions that would be necessary to comply with the 2011 Budget Control Act. Last month’s Bipartisan Budget Act reversed some of the cuts for 2014 and 2015. Beyond that, the military would have to adjust to lower spending caps. “I’m worried,” Odierno said at the Council on Foreign Relations. Once the military is back to sequester-level budgets, he said, the Army will be “too small.”

The Army’s original plan was to downsize from a peak of 570,000 to 490,000 by 2018. In the wake of sequester cuts last year, the goal was accelerated by two years. The current force stands at 527,000, with planned annual cuts of 20,000 through the end of fiscal year 2015.

By the latest projections, the Army would have to dip further to 420,000 to fit within the budget caps. But Odierno drew a hard line at 450,000. With 60,000 soldiers deployed and uncertainty about future U.S. military needs, the Army should not be cut so drastically, he said. He called for a minimum of 450,000 active, 335,000 Guard and 195,000 Reserve troops.

“At 420,000 we lose capability,” he said. “The last 30,000 make a huge difference in operational forces.” To afford 450,000 soldiers, the Army would need additional relief from the current spending limits, though.

This would require Congress to continue to spare the Defense Department from the ax. There are still widely dissenting views in Washington on how to reduce military spending. Several think tanks have suggested the Pentagon should shed ground troops and shift resources to high-tech naval and air forces. Administration officials are eager to put a decade of ground wars behind them and would like to see the Pentagon plan for a “never again” future.

“This is a very difficult discussion,” said Odierno. He hopes to make a case that the country is rushing to gut its ground forces without thinking through the consequences. “There has been a major deployment of ground forces in every decade since the 1940s,” he said. “I see potential crises.” He cited North Korea, Syria, and a widespread Sunni-Shiite divide that is spreading across the Middle East. “I am seeing extremists playing a role in Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq. This is not a time when I can say we can get small because we won't need an army.”

Odierno said he harbors hope that Congress will “take another look at this.” He wants at least three to four years to make the cuts more gradual. “I'm not looking for a complete restoration of sequestration,” he said, “With 60,000 troops deployed, I have to do it slower.”

A similar case has been argued by Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyers. He said the sequester schedule does not give the Pentagon enough time to adjust force size and ensure there is sufficient investment in training and equipment.

Navy officials, too, are sounding alarms as the Pentagon weighs reductions to naval forces, including the possibility of losing an aircraft carrier battle group.

“We don't want to get rid of anything. We need more, to be honest,” said Adm. William E. Gortney, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command. The Navy is being asked to shrink but its missions are not being eliminated accordingly, he said Feb. 12 at the AFCEA West naval conference in San Diego. “Whether it's an aircraft carrier or a submarine or a cruiser, I've got more mission than I've got all of that stuff,” Gortney said.

Unless the demand for naval forces goes down, or the money goes up, “we're going to be on the HOV lane to hollow,” he said. “The Navy put up some tough choices to get rid of capacity that we really need in order to do our missions,” he said, referring to the proposal to retire the USS George Washington aircraft carrier before its mid-life refueling. The impact of doing so, he said, would not be felt immediately, but it would ultimately result in the Navy not being able to keep two carrier groups deployed at all times, as the Pentagon has directed. “A single ship really matters to generate the force presence that we need.”

The Navy will have to shrink and reduce overseas commitments if it has to revert to sequestration level spending in fiscal year 2016, said Adm. Mark Ferguson, vice chief of naval operations. "We are going to have to get smaller to meet a fiscal target and it's going to be difficult if not impossible for us to meet the current defense strategy as it's laid out," he said Feb. 13 at the AFCEA conference.

Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox, a seasoned budget warrior, cautioned that the Pentagon is cutting back at a time when potential adversaries such as China are increasing military spending at a rate of 10 percent a year. Under today’s fiscal circumstances, though, the military has to downsize so it can free up funds to modernize its weapon systems. As a result of the 2013 sequester, she said, the Defense Department slashed nearly $16 billion from its modernization accounts.

The military faces its fifth defense drawdown in the past 70 years, and none has been well managed, Fox noted. The first three came after the end of wars, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. The fourth came at the end of the Cold War. “All of these drawdowns resulted in a force that led to a disproportionate loss in readiness and capability,” Fox said Feb. 11 at the naval conference in San Diego.

“In general, the force was used more often than planned, and it's operating and overhead costs stayed high,” Fox said. She warned that sequestration-level funding continues to be the law of the land starting in 2016. “Given these fiscal realities, the department cannot postpone further difficult decisions about the military's size and operating costs.”

But although there is widespread agreement that “difficult decisions” must be made on defense spending, it is not clear who will take the lead. The Obama administration so far has refused to submit budgets that comply with the budget caps that are set by law. And Congress has aggravated the situation by rejecting almost every Pentagon cost-saving recommendation, such as increasing Tricare fees for retirees, taking aging ships and aircraft out of service and closing excess military bases.

Decisions about force size, military compensation, benefits, and major weapon systems have to be made now in order to yield savings before sequester hits the Pentagon again, said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. He said the defense establishment appears to be still in denial about the fiscal situation.

One reason could be that defense officials sense there is a diminished appetite for spending cuts in an election year. The Congressional Budget Office provided defense hawks political cover with its latest estimate that the federal deficit this year will be $514 billion, down from $1.4 trillion in 2009.

This has rankled fiscal-discipline advocates who worry that Congress will use budget gimmickry to protect the military and other constituencies from spending cuts.

A taste of what might come was this week’s passage of legislation to reverse cost of living adjustments for working age military retirees, which cost the government $6 billion but was offset by extending the sequester on Medicare spending for one additional year, to 2024. These accounting tricks only worsen the deficit situation in the long term, said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Topics: Defense Department, Defense Watch, DOD Budget, DOD Leadership, War Planning

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