WASHINGTON — Impending budget cuts could hamper efforts to deter North Korea from taking hostile action and stymie plans to upgrade America's nuclear arsenal, top U.S. military officers told senators Tuesday.
Army Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti told the Senate Armed Services Committee that reducing the number of aircraft carriers in the Pacific could undercut deterrence and increase the possibility of miscalculation in the tense Korean peninsula. Scaparrotti, who has been nominated to command U.S. forces in South Korea, added that cuts in training will also erode combat readiness there.
He said Pyongyang is putting more money into development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, special operations forces and cyberthreat capabilities. And he added that if U.S. forces had to be deployed to Korea as a result of a provocation there, "we would probably take some time here in the States to train that unit to the readiness level that we believe they need to be at to do the job before they deploy. So arriving forces might be delayed as a result."
During the same hearing, Navy Adm. Cecil Haney said that the U.S. must continue plans to upgrade the nation's primary nuclear bomb and replace the aging fleet of nuclear-capable submarines to counter threats from other nations and non-state actors. Haney, who has been nominated to take over U.S. Strategic Command, said that cost savings have contributed to the delay in development of the new Ohio Class ballistic missile submarine, adding that additional delays would be unacceptable.
The Pentagon faces the prospect of a $52 billion, across-the-board budget cut in 2014 unless Congress and the White House come up with a deficit-cutting plan.
Haney also said that budget cuts are a factor as the Pentagon considers whether to make U.S. Cyber Command a separate military command. Currently it is part of U.S. Strategic Command, but military officials have been vocal in their warnings about the growing threat of cyberattacks from enemy nations and terrorists.
Right now, Haney said that creating a new command will trigger more overhead costs, so leaving the cyber responsibilities under Strategic Command works for now.
Senators quizzed Scaparrotti on the planned transfer of wartime control to South Korea, giving Seoul the primary responsibility for defending itself in a conflict.
"Sovereign nations should be responsible for their own national defense in time of war, particularly after the length of time that they have been gaining in capability," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.
He said he would do all he could to stick to the December 2015 deadline for the transfer of control.
Others expressed concerns that Haney has said he supports further analysis before a decision is made to develop a missile defense site on the East Coast.
"What further analysis do we need to conduct?" asked Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. "You know, we missed it when it came to the North Korean nuclear threat. And I'd hate to see us in that position with regard to Iran." She said having a site on the East Coast would provide greater capability for the U.S. to respond if Iran launches an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Haney said he believes that an environmental impact study should go forward on possible East Coast sites. But he said he'd like to see further study on the need for an East Coast location, but that that a key priority is to invest in sensor technologies that are able to accurately determine what type of missile has been launched at the U.S. – whether it's a decoy or a warhead.
Haney also offered support for the beleaguered new Littoral Combat Ship – a small combat vessel now being deployed in the Pacific. There have been nagging questions about the cost and viability of the roughly $34 billion program and whether the Pentagon's plan to buy up to 52 of the ships should be chopped by as much as half due to budget constraints.
Haney said the USS Freedom, which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel toured in a recent trip to Singapore, is working out well and that the Navy is making improvements as it learns more about how the vessel operates.