WASHINGTON -- Pending automatic spending cuts have put the U.S. armed forces on a path to being so unprepared for combat that it would be "immoral" to use them, the Defense Department's top leaders told lawmakers Tuesday in their most dire warning yet of how looming budget reductions could undercut military readiness.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in response to a question during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that neither he nor any of the four-star officers in charge of the military services have considered resigning to protest the billions in dollars in cuts that will begin on March 1 unless Congress acts to stop them.
"But I will tell you personally, if ever the force is so degraded and so unready, and then we're asked to use it, it would be immoral to use the force unless it's well-trained, well-led and well-equipped," Dempsey said.
"Are we on the path to creating that dilemma?" asked Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
"We are on that path," Dempsey said.
The uniformed leaders of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps agreed with Dempsey's assessment.
The potential for the automatic cuts, called a sequester, 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, and additional cuts would come in future years as long as the sequester remains in effect. 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. A freeze on hiring is already in place and the military has cut back on maintenance at bases and facilities, they said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week that the United States is at risk of becoming a second-rate military power if the sequester isn't prevented. If the reductions are allowed to stand, Panetta said he would have to throw the country's national defense strategy "out the window."
Dempsey, the service chiefs and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter added greater detail during Tuesday's hearing, held as President Barack Obama called North Korea's third nuclear test in seven years a "highly provocative act" that threatens U.S. security and international peace.
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 military'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. No one at the witness table disputed McCain's assessment.
The Defense Department announced last week 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 the sequester. 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, Adm. Mark Ferguson, the vice chief of naval operations, told the committee. The Navy will have to shut down four of its air wings on March 1 unless a sequester is averted, he added.
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," said Odierno, using a term to describe a force that looks good on paper but lacks adequately trained troops and modern equipment. "I do not want to end my career in a hollow Army."
By the end of 2013, less than half of the Marine Corps' ground units will be trained to the minimum readiness level required for deployment, said Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant. Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said a sequester will force an involuntary 22-day furlough for up to 180,000 civilian airmen. That deprives the Air Force of over 31.5 million hours of productivity and will result in loss of over 200,000 flying hours, Welsh said.
Carter, the deputy defense secretary, urged lawmakers to put aside their partisan differences and head off the sequester, which he said is "purely the collateral damage of political gridlock."