Top Pentagon Brass Lay Out Details of Sequestration Nightmare

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
With less than three weeks to go before automatic governmentwide budget cuts, the entire leadership team at the Pentagon on Tuesday implored the Senate Armed Services Committee to cancel sequestration and adjust the continuing resolution set to run out March 27.

In an emotional hearing that prompted lawmakers to criticize their own and blast President Obama’s leadership, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and top civilian officials laid out details of the harm across-the-board budget cuts would inflict on the nation’s military readiness and long-term effectiveness.

“Military readiness is in jeopardy due to the convergence of unprecedented budget factors,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. “We need help from our elected leaders to avoid hollowing out the force and compromising our nation’s security. Specifically, we need passage of a regular 2013 defense appropriation, and we need sequestration to be canceled.” Otherwise, the United States would have “a degraded capability,” and it would be “immoral” to send troops into battle, he added.

Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., called sequestration “arbitrary and irrational,” noting that it would not only weaken security but also harm education child care and airport safety. “We cannot afford to look the other way and pretend there is not a huge looming problem.”

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter called the “twin evils” of sequestration and a year-long continuing resolution “more dangerous than it’s ever been” as the Pentagon faces its “biggest cut in history.” He warned that cuts of $42 billion by the end of fiscal 2013 would mean a “drastic shortfall in the funding we need to do training, which inhibits our capacity to fight.” The Defense Department, he added, “would have to go back and redo our national defense strategy.”

Carter’s testimony included grim details. He mentioned cuts of $2 billion to $3 billion in the TRICARE military health insurance program. “You can’t cut health care the way you can cut back depot maintenance or training,” he said, “because you can’t tell people they can’t be sick or see a doctor.”

He noted that a coming hiring freeze would disproportionately affect veterans, who make up 44 percent of the department’s civilian workforce. Layoffs would hit a significant portion of 46,000 temporary employees; more than $10 billion in funding -- mostly to contractors and small businesses -- would vanish. The Air Force, for example, plans to scale back facilities maintenance by about 50 percent, affecting 189 projects at 55 installations in 26 states, he said.

As of March 1, the services will begin canceling fleet maintenance work for the third and fourth quarters of the fiscal year, affecting 25 ships and 470 aircraft, he said. What will be put on hold are “contracts we intend to enter, such as multiyear contracts,” Carter said. The industrial base, particularly small businesses vital to the supply chain and to innovation, he said, won’t have the capital to stay in business. “All of the hard work our managers did for taxpayers to get a good deal for the government all goes down the drain,” Carter added.

Army Gen. Raymond Odierno told lawmakers he has cut 3,100 temporary and term employees from the workforce and ordered an immediate departmentwide hiring freeze. The Army has initiated planning to furlough up to 251,000 civilians for one day a week for 22 weeks. The service also is preparing to cancel depot maintenance in the third and fourth quarters, which would eliminate an estimated 5,000 temporary, term, contractor and permanent jobs. “We will reduce Army purchase orders with 3,000 companies,” of which 1,100 could face bankruptcy, he said.

“We are reducing institutional training across the Army. This will result in a backlog across our education,” Odierno added, noting that sequestration affects everything, including veterans suicide prevention programs.

Marine Corps Gen. James Amos said, “Readiness is at a tipping point in the sense that our ability to rebalance funding from long-term investments to short-term readiness is becoming unsustainable. By the end of calendar year 2013, less than half of our ground units will be trained to the minimum readiness level required for deployment.”

In an angry outburst, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the situation is “an Orwellian experience, a disconnect the likes of which I’ve never seen.” He noted the debate comes at a time of national security threats from North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Libya and Mali. McCain said it is disgraceful to treat the men and women of the military in a way that subjects them to such uncertainty. “The president during the campaign said sequestration won’t happen,” he said, adding that the Office of Management and Budget told agencies they needn’t send WARN Act layoff warning notices to contractors. “We elect presidents for a reason, to lead,” McCain said. He called on Obama to summon congressional leaders to the White House to “come to an agreement to prevent sequestration, not only for national security but for the benefit of men and women who serve.”

Despite her concern about funding cuts for ports in her home state, New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen said, “All members of Congress should take a second look at what we do here. All of us should put aside our sacred cows, meaning revenues and entitlement programs and look at all options.”

Addressing the Joint Chiefs, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked whether the situation was as bad as anything they’d ever seen and whether they’d thought of resigning. Gen. Dempsey agreed the situation was the worst, but said he and his colleagues were not inclined to run from a crisis.

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