Top military officers warn about effects of potential spending cuts

Story highlights

  • For months the Pentagon has raised alarms about further budget cuts
  • The top officers in each branch of service were on Capitol Hill Wednesday
  • The congressional "super committee" has until November 23 to reach a budget deal
The top military officers were on Capitol Hill Wednesday warning what one called the "catastrophic" impact of further defense cuts, and providing more detail about what potentially would get cut if a deal on the budget was not reached and automatic cuts were imposed.
For months, the Pentagon -- from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on down -- has been sounding the alarm about what further budget cuts would mean to American national security. Wednesday's chorus of warnings came from the top officers in each branch of service about what would happen if they had to cut even more from their budgets.
"Cuts of this magnitude would be catastrophic to the military, and in the case of the Army would significantly reduce our capability," Gen. Ray Odierno, the new Army chief of staff, testified about the potential of huge cuts if the 12-member congressional "super committee" doesn't reach a budget deal by Thanksgiving.
Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of Naval operations, echoed those concerns, saying, "In my view sequestration will cause irreversible damage." Sequestration is the term used for mandatory across-the-board defense budget cuts.
Getting down to specifics of the cuts, Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, testified that "at a minimum, they would slash all of our investment accounts, including our top priority modernization program such as the KC-46 -- the (air refueling) tanker -- the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft, and the future long-range strike bomber."
Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, said he is worried about more than hardware; he is concerned the cuts would mean a loss of some of the U.S.'s most experienced troops.
"We will lose that leadership of those NCOs and those staff noncommissioned officers at the five, six, seven year mark that have shouldered the burden of the last 10 years of our conflicts. We will lose that," Amos said.
"They will leave and we will -- it will take us another six to 10 years ... to grow that sailor down in Norfolk or that staff NCO or NCO within the Marine Corps."
At the Pentagon, spokesmen pushed back Wednesday against suggestions that military officials may be over-dramatizing the consequences, or "crying wolf" to make their point.
"I think it is telling that it is not only the secretary but the military leadership of this Department using worlds like 'devastating' and 'Doomsday scenario,'" Pentagon spokesman George Little said Wednesday morning at the off-camera question-and-answer session with journalists.
"I think the reality is that we have done the analysis and we would face the smallest Army and Marines Corps in decades. We would face the smallest Air Force in the history of the service and we would have the smallest Navy since the Woodrow Wilson administration if sequestration were to happen."
The consequences, Little argued, would stretch beyond the Defense Department to the civilian economy.
"We have done that analysis and ... we would also have a severe impact to jobs, inside the department and inside the defense industrial base. And these are serious issues to contend with," Little said.
"Inside the department, the job issue is of great concern but also outside because the skills and expertise of the defense industrial base are what creates new capabilities for the U.S. military going forward. The threats aren't going away, and we need to be prepared. And if we hollow out the force and hollow out the industrial base, that would create significant problems for our national security," Little said.
At the House hearing, Gen. Amos reiterated the connection between a robust American military and a strong economy. "Ninety-five percent of the world's commerce travels by seas and oceans," Amos said. "The commerce and the economics would want us, would seem to compel us to want to have forward presence."
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Maryland, asked why the U.S. Air Force had abandoned plans to look at a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, which Bartlett believes will save money through competition. Gen. Schwartz responded by saying an engine competition, in the short run, would be too expensive.
"Based on the information I've seen, sir, it would require development of two engines, with the test programs and all that's associated with that. There simply is no free money available to pursue a second development program."
Schwartz also was quick to point out that regardless of the result of the budget debate, U.S. troops will always be ready to serve their country. "Your soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are not going to go on break," he said.