WASHINGTON - The automatic budget cuts due to go into effect next month are "the collateral damage of political gridlock," a senior Pentagon official told a congressional committee Tuesday.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter urged lawmakers to put aside their partisan differences and head off the reductions, saying the looming cuts known as sequestration are "particularly tragic" because they are avoidable.
"It's not because discretionary spending cuts are the answer to our nation's fiscal challenge; do the math," Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "It's not in reaction to a change to a more peaceful world. It's not due to a breakthrough in military technology or a new strategic insight. It's not because paths of revenue growth and entitlement spending have been explored and exhausted."
The potential for the cuts to kick in on March 1 is the result of Congress' failure to trim the deficit by $1.2 trillion over a decade. The Pentagon faces a $46 billion budget reduction in the seven months starting in March and ending in September, Carter said. The automatic cuts would be in addition to a $487 billion reduction in defense spending over the next 10 years mandated by the Budget Control Act passed in 2011.
Further complicating the military's fiscal picture is the lack of a budget for the current fiscal year. Congress hasn't approved one. Lawmakers have instead been passing bills called continuing resolutions, which keep spending levels at the same rate as the year before. That means the Pentagon is operating on less money than planned, and that compounds the problem, defense officials said.
Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, and the uniformed chiefs and one vice chief of the service branches appeared before the committee along with Carter. Adm. Mark Ferguson, the vice chief of naval operations, testified in place of Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations.
Dempsey said "military readiness is in jeopardy due to the convergence of unprecedented budget factors." If the situation isn't fixed, he said, the armed forces "will have much less of everything and therefore be able to provide fewer options to our nation's leaders."
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., asked Dempsey to rate the dangers of sequestration on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the most severe.
"From where I sit today, it sure feels like a 10," Dempsey said. None of the other witnesses disagreed.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., described the department's financial situation as "kind of an Orwellian experience" because it's occurring when North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon, Iran remains a threat in the Persian Gulf region, and Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Mali and Tunisia all are in a state of unrest.
"We are probably in a more unsettled period since the end of the Cold War that certainly I have ever seen," McCain said.
Carter didn't dispute McCain's assessment.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked the officers at the witness table if any of them had considered resigning in protest over the lack of adequate budgets to train and field their forces. No one said yes.
"None of us walk away or run away from a crisis or a fight," Dempsey said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last week said that the United States is at risk of becoming a second-rate power if sequestration goes into effect. If the reductions are allowed to stand, Panetta said he would have to throw the country's national defense strategy "out the window."
Panetta's dire warning came a day after the Defense Department announced it is cutting its aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf region from two carriers to one, a move that represents one of the most significant effects of sequestration. The U.S. has maintained two aircraft carrier groups in the Gulf for much of the last two years.
The deployments of the USS Harry S Truman and the USS Gettysburg, a guided-missile cruiser, are being delayed as part of the Navy's plan to deal with the budget uncertainty.
If a 2013 budget isn't passed, the Navy will have to stop the refueling overhauls to two other carriers, the USS Abraham Lincoln and the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and delay the construction of other ships, Ferguson told the committee.
Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, called the budget situation "dire" and "unprecedented." The Army's top priority, he said, is to ensure that soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Korea and those next to deploy are prepared and ready. But close to 80 percent of the force - those not in Afghanistan or Korea or deploying this year - will have their training curtailed, he said.
"I began my career in a hollow Army," Odierno said. "I do not want to end my career in a hollow Army."
While Carter was testifying, a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee accused the Defense Department of playing politics with national security by publicly emphasizing how the budget reductions would degrade the military's readiness while continuing to spend millions of dollars on questionable programs.
In a Feb. 12 letter to Carter, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said he is concerned that the cuts affecting the readiness of the armed forces "are being made for the purpose of adding drama to the sequestration debate, given the continuation of other programs that are worthy of cost cuts or even elimination."
Hunter cited the $170 million cost of the Navy's experimental Green Fleet and a multibillion-dollar Army intelligence gathering system that doesn't work as well as less expensive commercial software products, saying they are programs that could be canceled or pared back.
"These are just two high-profile examples among many others, but they illustrate expenditures that demand reconsideration under any budget scenario, even more so now that cuts to readiness are occurring," wrote Hunter, a former Marine who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
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