The Navy and Marine Corps chiefs warned Thursday that projected defense spending cuts under the sequestration process could threaten the Obama administration's proposed rebalance of forces to the Pacific region.
"The cold reality of sequester has settled in," said Gen. James Amos, the Commandant of the Marine Corps. The service chiefs will have to decide on how much of the Pacific pivot is affordable, he said.
"We're still working our way through that," Amos said. "What we're going to have to do now is figure out how much we can afford."
Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations, said the Navy hasn't yet reached the point where he'll "come running down the hall saying we can't do that." However, with a second year of sequester looming and Congress gridlocked, the Navy will have to decide, "what is the capacity we can provide for that strategy" of focusing on the Pacific, he said.
Greenert and Amos spoke at a Center for Strategic and International Studies forum a day after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gave a general outline to the Senate Armed Services Committee on the impacts of sequestration continuing through fiscal 2014.
Hagel projected that sequestration would take another $52 billion out of defense spending in the year beginning Oct. 1 on top of the $37 billion this year. He warned that the "draconian" cuts may force the Pentagon to freeze recruiting and promotions, cancel weapons purchases and scale back training exercises and deployments.
The automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration, were intended to prod the White House and Congress to find another to address the national deficit, but lawmakers failed to reach a deal. The sequester calls for defense spending to be cut by about $500 billion over a decade, in addition to the $487 billion in reductions already planned for the same time period.
In their remarks at CSIS, both Greenert and Amos said the across-the-board nature of the budget cuts was hamstringing their ability to pick and choose priorities for their services.
"You're not being allowed to manage" under the constraints of sequester, Greenert said. "We need a common way to plan and execute. You need control," he said, and "sequester by definition removes control."
Amos said "we're more than fiscally sensitive right now," but he stressed the need for guaranteed funding as the military resets after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Amos said that more than 70 percent of the equipment now being used in Afghanistan came out of Iraq. "You can't just continue to use the same gear over and over and over again," he said. "All the while, we're in the midst of sequestration. I'll tell you, I don't think there's any peace dividend" in the withdrawals from the fighting overseas.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in March said the budget turmoil wouldn't harm the Pentagon's plans to shift emphasis to the Asia-Pacific region. But he assumed Congress and the White House would strike a deal to avoid a second year of automatic reductions.
Both Greenert and Amos said the Pacific rebalance requires basing ships and troops overseas -- a process that would be made more difficult by the continuation of sequestration.
Asian allies "don't want a large footprint" from the U.S. in the region, Greenert said, and "we don't need a large footprint." But Amos said that some forward basing was necessary to provide the stability that would make the rebalance work. "You can't surge trust," Amos said.