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Pentagon's Dire Budget Warnings Fall on Deaf Ears

Ashton Carter
Ashton Carter

Relatively few lawmakers turned out today to hear Pentagon officials warn that ongoing budget cuts would bring widespread changes to the military and limit its strategic goals.

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared before the House Armed Services Committee to discuss the potential impacts, which were detailed in an assessment released yesterday known in military parlance as the Strategic Choices and Management Review, or SCMR (pronounced "skimmer").

In the worst-case scenario, the Pentagon may have to cut 142,000 more active-duty soldiers and Marines, three carrier strike groups and a number of fighter and bomber squadrons -- or "many" modernization programs, according to Winnefeld, whose testimony echoed comments made yesterday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

"We're sort of trapped in this strategic no man's land," Winnefeld said, referring to the view that long-term cuts would prevent leaders from enforcing parts of the current military strategy.

The Pentagon considered options under three budget scenarios with varying levels of cuts: $150 billion over 10 years, as included in President Barack Obama's fiscal 2014 budget request; $250 billion over a decade; or the full sequester amount of $500 billion over the same period.

The review concluded that the military could still fulfill "required" missions while reducing the active-duty Army to as few as 420,000 soldiers, down from the current plan of 490,000 soldiers by 2018, and the Army reserves to as few as 490,000 soldiers, down from 555,000, according to Winnefeld's testimony. The Air Force could retire as many as five squadrons and reduce the size of the C-130 fleet "with minimal risk," it states.

If Congress and the White House can't reach a deal to avert $500 billion in decade-long reductions to the defense budget under a process called sequestration, the active Army would be forced to thin its ranks to as few as 380,000 soldiers and the Marine Corps to as few as 150,000 Marines, down from the current plan of 182,000. The number of carrier strike groups may fall to eight, down from 11, and an unspecified number of fighter and bomber squadrons would be retired, as well.

While that would still leave more ground troops than before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the impact to the force structure would be "significant," Winnefeld said.

Carter described the findings as "sobering."

The Pentagon figured it can save as much as $100 billion in compensation costs by limiting pay raises to military and civilian workers, making troops pay more for housing and forcing working-age retirees pay more for health care, according to Carter.

It estimated it might be able to save an additional $60 billion in overhead costs by reducing headquarters staff some 20 percent, trimming redundant intelligence analysis at combatant commands and realigning and closing bases, he said.

Still, even if Congress supported the controversial proposals -- many of which it rejected from the 2014 budget request -- the Pentagon would be about $350 billion short of the amount required by sequestration, Carter said.

"These reforms are difficult and painful, but we have to do them," he said.

The first installment of automatic budget cuts took effect March 1, slicing about $37 billion from the Pentagon's budget for the fiscal year ending Sept. 1. As a result, the Pentagon forced about 650,000 civilian workers to take 11 days of mandatory unpaid leave known as furloughs, among other emergency measures.

"It is very serious and no way to treat people," Carter said of the furloughs.

Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., teamed with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2012, to introduce a bill today that he said would give the Pentagon more flexibility in managing cuts from sequestration.

Cooper introduced an amendment that would have done the same thing to the House's version of the 2014 defense authorization bill, which sets policy goals and spending targets, but the measure failed on a recorded vote. During the hearing, he seemed resigned about the bill's fate and noted the lack of turnout -- not among attendees, but among lawmakers.

"I don't know how far this bill will go, but I hope that more members of Congress and even more members of this committee -- because this has not been the best attended of our hearings -- will pay attention to the extraordinary upheaval that's going on in the Defense Department right now as a result of our own actions," he said. "This is not a foreign threat. This is a self-inflected wound and Congress needs to behave much, much better when it comes to funding our military priorities."

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