U.S. Army soldiers preparing to deploy to Afghanistan this year may have to stay well past 12 months if Congress allows a devastating round of defense cuts to begin next month.
As the March 1 sequestration deadline approaches, specific details continue to emerge of the potential damage sequestration cuts will inflict upon the readiness levels and operational capabilities of the U.S. Military.
Army officials project that these across-the-board cuts would force the service to drastically cut training for about 80 percent of its combat units.
During a Feb. 12, Senate hearing, Sen. Mark Udall, D-Col., questioned whether this would create "a ripple effect that will lead to increased tour lengths for deploying troops."
Currently, the Army has funded the next group of units that will deploy to Afghanistan, Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno said.
"We cannot fund the group that comes after them," he told lawmakers. "So what that means is the initial replacements that go in at the beginning of 2014 are funded; those that would come in later in the year are not. And so it would take them much longer to be prepared, and so we will have to make a decision somewhere along the line to either extend those already there or send people that are not ready, and I choose not to send there that will not be ready."
President Obama is expected to announce in his State of the Union Tuesday that 34,000 American combat troops will be out of Afghanistan by this time next year, leaving about 28,000 to support and train the Afghans for the remainder of 2014.
But the nation's ongoing financial crisis stands to affect a lot more than Army rotations to Afghanistan.
If sequestration occurs, the Pentagon will have to cut $46 billion from the remainder of fiscal 2013, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told senators. On top of that, the Pentagon is operating on spending levels of 2012 under a continuing resolution.
"It has enough money in it overall, but … it does not have enough operations and maintenance money," Carter said. "This year there is a drastic shortfall in the money we need to do training and training in turn impacts readiness and readiness is our capacity to fight in other places than Afghanistan."
If the spending caps imposed under sequestration continue for the next 10 years, the Pentagon will be forced to abandon the defense strategy it put into motion last year, Carter said.
"We are going to have to change our national defense strategy; those cuts are too large and too sustained for us to implement the strategy that we crafted under the President's guidance just one year ago," he said.
In some cases the services are already feeling the effects of the financial crisis. The Navy just canceled a planned deployment of the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier and other ships in its strike group.
"We had to do that because we recognized that we were going to run out of operations and maintenance funds later in the year, and we made the decision not to deploy the carrier but instead keep it here in the United States so that we would have the capacity to deploy it later if we needed it," Carter said.
In addition, the Navy has postponed the planned overhaul of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and stopped work on the current overhaul of the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, said Navy Adm. Mark Ferguson III, vice chief of U.S. Naval Operations.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos projected that 50 percent of his combat units will be below the "minimal acceptable levels of readiness for deployment to combat" by the end of the year.
For the Air Force, sequestration will mean a $12.4 billion budget reduction in fiscal 2013, resulting in the loss of over 200,000 flying hours, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III. That means that two thirds of the Air Force's combat units will significantly reduce home-station flight training in mid March, dropping below accepted readiness levels by mid May, Welsh added.
While the Air Force plans to protect flight hours for units in Afghanistan, most units "will be completely non-mission-capable by July," Welsh said.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., suggested that Congress move forward with a bill he worked on last week with Sen. John McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham that would "mitigate the effects of sequestration through the end of the fiscal year and provide the Defense Department with the flexibility it desperately needs to operate under a continuing resolution."
"It's not a perfect solution, but it is better than doing nothing," Inhofe said.