Army Vice Chief Gen. Peter Chiarelli warned House lawmakers Thursday the U.S. could repeat some of its most ignominious defeats if it cuts defense spending too deeply. He spoke at a hearing at which the rhetoric ratcheted so high the committee chairman nearly broke down in tears.
Again and again, Chiarelli warned, the U.S. has cut back its land forces after major wars only to see them pay in blood when they've been called back into action later. The Army's drawdown after World War I led to its defeat in the Battle of the Kasserine Pass early in World War II, he said, when the troops sent into battle were poorly organized and equipped. A hollowing of the service after World War II meant the Army had to send an under-strength and unprepared Task Force Smith into action in Korea in the Battle of Osan, where it was routed with heavy casualties.
The pattern is clear, Chiarelli said: "We will never fail you. We will always do it." But if the Army doesn't begin with the best equipment and the right force structure, "the results will not be good."
"Quite frankly, it has cost us lives. It has cost us lives every single time," he said.
The drama at Thursday's hearing didn't end there -- as he has before, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, a California Republican, warned of dire national consequences if DoD's budget is cut too deeply. The U.S. unemployment rate could go up to 10 percent or more, he said, because major cutbacks could result in a million or more jobs lost around the country. And when McKeon began to tell stories about service members who've contacted him asking about whether they'll be able to count on their retirement and other benefits, he appeared almost overcome with emotion and unable to finish his sentence.
HASC Readiness subcommittee chairman Rep. Randy Forbes of Virginia retook the floor, saying McKeon's reaction showed how much he and the other committee members cared about the troops. After Forbes adjourned the session a few moments later, McKeon appeared to wipe his eyes. (UPDATE: See video of McKeon here.)
Besides the drama, Thursday's hearing fell into a now-familiar pattern for the House committee: Lawmakers asked service witnesses whether it would be terrible if the Doomsday Device reduced DoD's budget growth by nearly $1 trillion over the coming decade. Service witnesses responded that, yes, it would be terrible -- simply terrible. There were the now-familiar buzzwords and codewords: The U.S. needs a "strategy" to drive its decisions; the services must make some "hard choices;" everything is on the "table;" DoD must "keep faith" with current service members and avoid a "hollow force" going forward. Overall the U.S. must maintain a "balanced" military posture because "we've got a perfect record of predicting our next conflict -- 100 percent wrong."
Pentagon leaders apparently hope to keep up this tap-dance routine until the end of the year: Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Philip Breedlove said Thursday the Mother of All Reviews we've been waiting for won't be finished until the end of December. But that could change again: DoD has gone back and forth on almost every detail about this document. The Pentagon seems to be torn about whether it wants to play with the Congressional "super committee" whose success or failure could have such dramatic consequences for DoD. At times officials have said the comprehensive review wouldn't come out until next February, along with the fiscal 2013 budget, but they've also said it could be out this year in time to influence lawmakers' deliberations. Bottom line: Breedlove did not make clear whether DoD will have a document in time to influence the "super committee" or the larger Congress as lawmakers debate.