WASHINGTON — There is plenty of blame to go around for the pending automatic budget cuts that have put the U.S. military on the brink of a readiness crisis, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Wednesday.
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon said that neither Congress nor the Obama administration has "clean hands." The debt crisis forcing the cuts was decades in the making, yet both sides opted for the easy path "when we should have explored the bravery of restraint," he said at a committee hearing.
While McKeon struck a balanced tone, other Republicans on the panel weren't as diplomatic. They complained the White House and the Pentagon waited too long to plan for the impact of the cuts and didn't warn Congress and the American public of the consequences until now.
During a heated exchange with Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said the military has known for a long time the cuts were a possibility but failed to do enough to prepare for the chance of them happening. Carter defended the Pentagon's planning, saying he alerted Congress last year.
But Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., said lawmakers have been kept in the dark until just a few weeks before the cuts are to go into effect. "We heard over and over again when we were asking you guys what's the impact, we were hearing, `We're not doing the planning. You can't plan for chaos,'" Forbes told Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army's chief of staff.
The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, urged lawmakers to prevent the cuts, called a sequester. Smith said it is time to stop talking about the impact of the reductions and "take immediate action to stave off the impending disaster that would occur should sequestration be implemented."
The sequester is scheduled to begin on March 1 and is the result of Congress' failure to trim the deficit by $1.2 trillion over a decade. The Pentagon faces a $46 billion budget reduction through the end of September, and additional cuts would come in future years as long as the sequester remains in effect. The military also has to absorb a $487 billion reduction in defense spending over the next 10 years mandated by the Budget Control Act passed in 2011.
The military's fiscal challenges are further complicated by the lack of a budget for the current fiscal year. Congress hasn't approved one. Lawmakers have instead been passing bills called continuing resolutions, which keep spending levels at last year's rates. That means the Pentagon is operating on less money than planned, and that compounds the problem, defense officials said. A freeze on hiring is already in place and the military has cut back on maintenance at bases and facilities, they said.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the armed forces are just days away from a readiness crisis due to the sequester.
Carter, Dempsey, Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale, and the uniformed leaders of the military services appeared before the committee to highlight the impact of the looming budget cuts on national security.
"Sequestration will upend our defense strategy," Dempsey said. "It will put the nation at greater risk of coercion."
Military officials have been conducting a vocal campaign to head off the budget cuts by emphasizing how the reductions will degrade the military's ability to respond to a crisis. The Defense Department announced last week it is cutting its aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf region from two carriers to one, a move that represents one of the most significant effects of the sequester. The U.S. has maintained two aircraft carrier groups in the Gulf for much of the last two years.
At Wednesday's hearing, the service chiefs provided specific example of how the sequester, combined with the lack of a 2013 budget and the long-term reductions, would impact the armed forces.
Odierno said training for Army helicopter pilots would be pared back and that could have deadly consequences in a place like Afghanistan where the rugged terrain and weather conditions makes flying dangerous.
"If we have to reduce the amount of training we give our pilots, they will go in there with a hell of a lot less capability," Odierno said. "That means there'll be mistakes made."
The Navy's top officer said by 2014 he would be unable to send ships to support U.S. Southern Command, which controls U.S. forces operating in Central America, South America and the Caribbean. The Navy also could not fully support counterterrorism operations in Somalia and Yemen, said Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations.
"So we're not there when it matters, and we're not ready when it matters," Greenert said.
Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said about half the Air Force combat units are below what he would consider acceptable levels of readiness.
"Sequestration threatens to carve crucial capability from our Air Force, with alarming and immediate effects on people, readiness, infrastructure, and eventually on modernization," Welsh said.
Training for Marines is already being degraded, said Marine Corps commandant Gen. James Amos. "By the end of this year, more than 50 percent of my tactical units will be below minimum acceptable levels for readiness for deployment (to) combat theaters," Amos said.
Despite the urgency of the warnings, the House of Representatives doesn't appear to have a plan from stopping sequestration from occurring, said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn. He said the House is going to be in recess next week, leaving little time to head off the automatic cuts.
"We're not doing anything," Cooper said.
"In fact, there's not even very good attendance at this hearing to hear the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and all the chiefs," he added, noticing that about only half of the committee's members were at the hearing.