The U.S. military faces devastating losses in troop strength and training, equipment procurement and maintenance, and mission capability if Congress does not avert automatic spending cuts set to begin March 1, top defense officials testified Tuesday.
"Secretary [Leon E.] Panetta and I have been using the word devastating for 16 months now," said Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who testified with military leaders at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. "And now the wolf's at the door."
Military chiefs of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and National Guard Bureau warned that the military would be unable to meet its war-fighting requirements.
The Pentagon has reduced some operations, training and maintenance because it is being funded by a continuing resolution that holds spending to 2012 levels. The funding measure will expire March 27, when Congress will have to extend it or approve a 2013 defense spending bill.
The Pentagon also would have to cut at least $42 billion from its budget by Sept. 30 and as much as $500 billion from its 10-year spending plan if automatic, across-the-board spending cuts called sequestration begin March 1.
Military leaders say sequestration would require:
The Army to cut 40 percent of its brigade combat teams and as many as 100,000 active-duty and reserve soldiers, said Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, Army chief of staff.
Spending constraints under the continuing resolution already have forced the Army to lay off 3,100 employees, impose a hiring freeze and plan to furlough up to 251,000 civilians for one day a week for 22 weeks, Gen. Odierno said. The Army is planning to cancel third- and fourth-quarter vehicle maintenance, which will result in 5,000 layoffs.
The Navy to cut back on flight operations, cancel deployments and delay maintenance on ships and aircraft, said Adm. Mark. E. Ferguson III, the vice chief of naval operations.
"We will immediately begin to erode the readiness of the force," Adm. Ferguson said.
If Congress merely extends the resolution, the Navy will have to delay the construction of the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy and the completion of amphibious assault ship USS America, and cancel the procurement of a destroyer and hundreds of weapons, he said. In addition, the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln will remain out of commission for more than four years, and maintenance on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt will be postponed.
The Air Force to furlough 180,000 civilians, resulting in a loss of more than 31.5 million "man-hours of productivity and specialized expertise" and more than 200,000 flying hours, said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III.
Two-thirds of active-duty Air Force combat units will drop below "acceptable readiness levels" by mid-May and be "completely non-mission capable" by July if sequestration occurs, Gen. Welsh said. In anticipation of sequestration, the Air Force has implemented a hiring freeze, delayed facility maintenance and upgrades, canceled travel and reduced training.
Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos said that by the end of this year, more than half of the Marine Corps' units will be below "minimal acceptable levels of readiness for deployment to combat" as a result of spending limits currently in place.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, criticized the cuts during a time of increased world threats.
"It's the day after North Korea tests another nuclear weapon, Iraq is unraveling, the Iranians just rejected the vice president's proposal last weekend for one-on-one talks concerning nuclear weapons, Libya is obvious, Mali, Egypt in a state of unrest, now Tunisia," Mr. McCain said. "We are probably in a more unsettled period since the end of the Cold War than certainly I have ever seen."