Former Army leaders on Tuesday lamented the loss of a core defense constituency on Capitol Hill and said the political divisions that led to the recent government shutdown and sequester cuts bodes poorly for the military as it moves to rebuild active duty and reserve forces after 12 years of war.
"I grew up in an era when Congress had a bipartisan consensus on the military," retired Lt. Gen. Dave Barno told listeners at a presentation on the National Guard during the Association of the U.S. Army conference in Washington D.C. "That era is now over. And if you watched what happened last week then it should be painfully apparent that I see no prospects for that [consensus] returning."
Retired Lt. Gen. Ron Helmly, former commander of the U.S. Army Reserve, said the country's National Guard and Reserve troops acquitted themselves well over the past dozen years of war, but that will have little to do with decisions made on funding for the military because of the divide.
"The defense constituency of [conservative-leaning] ‘Blue Dog' Democrats and internationalist Republicans is dissipated," he said, "and been replaced by progressive liberal Democrats and traditionalist isolationist Republicans – in political circles known as the Tea Party."
Their views are "diametrically opposed," he said, and there is no coalition in either the House or Senate that will come to the aid of the armed services. That is evident by the sequester cuts forced across the government, including DoD, without regard to actual need. Helmly called it a "chainsaw massacre approach" to budget cuts.
Next year, he said, more than half of the expected $85 billion in federal spending cuts will be made to the Defense Department budget.
The loss in funds reduces the options that military leaders have in every area, he said.
Retired Maj. Gen. Julian "J.B." Burns, former chief of staff for U.S. Forces Command, said that "we're not going to have the industrial base we had 12 years ago" when the U.S. went to war after the 9/11 attacks.
With the current reductions in spending and curtailing of contracts, companies that have established ties to the Defense Department are rethinking their future and many are bailing out.
"You can't imagine what that does to your major suppliers, [who] are not going be in this game much longer, and below them are their suppliers who are already out of this, including the defense market, with many of the subcomponents that you will need five years from now," he said.
At the rate things are going, "even if you built nothing, it would take you four years not to do it," he said.
In comments following the panel discussion, Burns said Washington has things backwards by imposing across-the-board cuts and then directing the military to come up with a national defense strategy.
"We should let the military judgment be heard before we decide what the budget is," he said. "What we're doing now is deciding on a budget and telling them what level of defense you can provide for this amount of money."