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The Pentagon’s top brass ratcheted up their rhetoric Thursday with a unified message to Congress: Defense spending cuts will mean more troop casualties.
At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, all four service chiefs said the impact of the budget reductions known as sequestration will mean a smaller force that receives less training, resulting in greater risk to troops in the event of large-scale combat deployments.
“If we get too small, then our ability to protect our own force is at risk,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told lawmakers.
Military leaders have to balance an instinct to keep force levels high with a need to prevent a so-called hollow force that is poorly trained or ill-equipped. At current spending levels, the Army faces the prospect of leaner training along with slowing or canceling new hardware programs such as the ground combat vehicle, armed aerial scout, aviation upgrades, unmanned aerial vehicles and the modernization of air defenses, Odierno said.
“We will not be able to train them for the mission they’re going to have to do. We will have to send them without the proper training — and actually maybe [without] proper equipment. ... So that always relates to potentially higher casualties,” Odierno said.
Lawmakers heard a similar warning from Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations.
“You have to be there with confident and proficient people. And if they’re not confident and proficient, then you’re talking more casualties,” Greenert said. “We will be slipping behind in capability, reduced force structure and reduced contingency response.”
Greenert offered details of the Navy’s new plans for absorbing the sequestration cuts that included dropping the target fleet size to 260, down from previous plans to reach 300 ships by 2020. Those reductions would mean shedding one or two carrier strike groups and one or two amphibious ready groups.
“We are headed towards a force in not too many years that will be hollow back home and not ready to deploy,” Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos said. “And if they do deploy, they will enter harm’s way, we’ll end up with more casualties.”
Specifically, Amos said the Corps can no longer afford its longstanding target size of 186,800 Marines and will have to shrink its force to about 174,000. At that level, he said, Marines will be unable to meet expectations under the Defense Department’s current national security strategy.
“Under sequestration, we will effectively lose a Marine division’s worth of combat power. This is a Marine Corps that would deploy to a major contingency, fight and not return until the war was over. We will empty the entire bench,” he said.
“If we’re not ready for all possible scenarios, then we’re accepting the notion that it’s OK to get to the fight late,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said. “We’re accepting the notion that the joint team may take longer to win, and we’re accepting then notion that our warfighters will be placed at greater risk. We should never accept those notions.”
The Air Force is facing the prospect of cutting 25,000 airmen, or about 7 percent of its force, and also about 550 aircraft, or about 9 percent of its inventory, Welsh said.
The Air Force will be “forced to divest entire fleets of aircraft. We can’t do it by cutting a few aircraft from each fleet,” Welsh said, a veiled reference to the A-10, a popular tactical fighter that has provided close-air support to ground troops throughout the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Despite the dire warnings from the four service chiefs, few lawmakers offered much sympathy and several suggested that DoD should brace for sequestration-level spending for the immediate future.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., historically one of the Pentagon’s most reliable allies on Capitol Hill, criticized Greenert’s request for more money for the next-generation aircraft carrier that is under construction.
“Admiral Greenert, you just talked about you need $500 million additional for the [carrier] Gerald R. Ford? ... You didn’t mention we have a $2 billion cost overrun in the Gerald R. Ford. Tell me, has anybody been fired from their job as a result of a $2 billion cost overrun of an aircraft carrier?” McCain said.
“I don’t know, Senator,” the admiral said.
“You don’t know?” McCain said. “Actually, you should know.”