WASHINGTON -- Programs for military families are likely to take sharp budget cuts should the Defense Department be ordered to further reduce spending, Army Secretary John M. McHugh said Wednesday.
At a breakfast meeting with defense writers, Mr. McHugh described as "almost unimaginable" the potential $600 billion budget hit the Pentagon would take if the congressional Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction does not reach a deal this month and forces across-the-board cuts under sequestration, and warned that family programs and Army modernization would be likely targets.
"We're a family-oriented Army today," McHugh said, noting that many more Soldiers have spouses and children than in decades past. "Those programs would be at great risk of massive cuts, if not outright elimination."
The potential for such reductions hits close to home for McHugh, the former north country congressman who helped build them up as chairman of a House subcommittee on military personnel and a panel on military morale, welfare and recreation programs. He and other Army leaders have pledged to leave family programs alone in the current wave of cuts, totaling $450 billion across the military, a promise McHugh made in early October.
Exactly which programs might be at risk for elimination in a worst-case scenario later on remains to be seen. Defense officials have already signaled a plan to increase fees on some non-active beneficiaries of the TRICARE health insurance program, and some lawmakers have endorsed ending the government subsidy that supports commissaries on military installations and combining their operation with exchanges, which are like department stores. The government also supports a wide range of recreation and other programs on military posts.Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said he wants to avoid deep cuts that directly affect troops and their families, echoing defense officials who caution about the effect on recruiting and retention. And the National Military Family Association has recently highlighted the potential threat to the commissary benefit, which makes groceries on average 30 percent cheaper than in off-post supermarkets.
But McHugh said the Army faces certain realities, including that unlike the Navy, which relies on ships, and the Air Force, which relies on planes, the Army's main arsenal is people. Even if half of the additional cut called for by sequestration comes from modernization -- which is likely, he said -- family programs will be vulnerable.
McHugh outlined the dark scenario as other military leaders, including Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, warned lawmakers on Capitol Hill about the potential effects of further deep cuts in the military budget -- a message the committee's leadership has been pushing for weeks.
Gen. Odierno, who visited Fort Drum last week, told the House Armed Services Committee that sequestration would be "catastrophic to the military and -- in the case of the Army -- would significantly reduce our capability and capacity to assure our partners abroad, respond to crises, and deter our potential adversaries, while threatening the readiness of our all-volunteer force."
Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday that he expects neither a deal from the deficit-reduction committee nor sequestration, but some yet-to-be-imagined agreement by the White House and top congressional leaders that averts serious cuts to national defense.
"I think that the ultimate outcome is that the military will have to work smarter and more efficiently," Owens said.
McHugh repeated leaders' familiar refrain that the $450 billion in cuts already underway can be achieved without severe pain on the force. The Army is already reducing its total active force from 569,000 to 520,000 and considering less expensive approaches to modernization.
A deeper budget cut could well lead to more force reductions, McHugh said, which can have an impact on the Army's mantra of being prepared for two simultaneous wars. The Army also plans to reduce deployments to nine months at a time next year, down from a year, but McHugh could not say whether additional end strength reductions below 520,000 will threaten the plan.
"I think if we go below, we'll have to run the numbers," McHugh said.
McHugh closed the door -- mostly -- on considering more base closures to satisfy new budget requirements. One of Congress's sharpest critics of the base realignment and closure process during his term from 1993 to 2009, McHugh noted Wednesday that the Army has just finished its biggest BRAC process and is also saving around $300 million a year through closure of 90 facilities in Europe. The Army took heavier cuts in the past two base closure rounds than other services, he said.
But he added that a significantly smaller Army does not need as much base structure.
"We don't want to be overstructured," McHugh said. "We will have to rationalize our end strength with our facilities."