By Tom Philpott
Unbending politicians are putting at risk the readiness of America’s armed forces, the Joint Chiefs warned last week in “28-star” letter to the House and Senate armed services committees. Members of Congress are holding defense budgets hostage while refusing to cut a deal to address the nation’s debt crisis.
“We are on the brink of creating a hollow force due to an unprecedented convergence of budget conditions and legislation that could require (keeping) more forces than requested while underfunding (their) readiness,” the seven members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff complained in a letter to committee chairmen Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Rep. Harold “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif.
“Should this looming readiness crisis be left unaddressed,” they continued, “we will have to ground aircraft, return ships to port, and stop driving combat vehicles in training. We will also be unable to reset and restore the force’s full-spectrum combat capability after over a decade of hard fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Even as the nation’s top generals and admirals pointed fingers at the mess lawmakers have made of their budgets, service leaders began notifying major commands to curtail spending immediately. For the Air Force and Navy departments, at least, that is to include a civilian-hiring freeze, except to fill readiness-critical jobs. Temporary workers will be dismissed and “term” employees will not see contracts renewed as they expire.
Army officials were not prepared to discuss specific moves its commands are taking to slow spending. But Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, in a Jan. 10 memo, gave guidance to every service on “near-term actions” they need to take to mitigate risk of running out of money.
The most pressing issue is that the last Congress failed to pass a 2013 defense appropriations bill. Instead, the Department of Defense is operating on a continuing resolution, through March 27, which caps spending at 2012 levels. Trouble is, the services have been spending beyond those levels on the assumption their 2013 budget request would be enacted.
The Navy estimates a funding shortfall at more than $4 billion for operations and maintenance, money needed to sustain training, maintain bases and operate ships and aircraft to prepare for deployment.
“Unless a spending bill is passed quickly by the new Congress,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus warned in a department-wide message Sunday, “we may be forced to operate under the same” resolution through September. If the resolution is extended, he wrote, “the Navy and Marine Corps would not have enough money to meet requirements.”
Air Force Secretary Mike Donley told reporters “budget gymnastics” were exerting “costly consequences upon the Air Force and our sister services and create an atmosphere of unease among many of our uniformed and civilian airmen.”
The Air Force projects a $1.8 billion shortfall in funds for overseas contingency operations. Air Force leaders referred to it Monday in an advisory to commands to take immediate steps to save money including a hiring freeze, curtailment of all flying not directly tied to readiness, and cancellation of all temporary duty assignments not mission critical, such as attendance at conferences and training seminars.
Deputy defense chief Carter advised the services to avoid any cuts that would impact wartime operations or compromise wounded warrior programs. And “to the extent feasible” they should protect family programs.
A second source of budget uncertainty is the threat of sequestration, the automatic 9 percent cut across 2,500 separate defense programs that the 2011 Budget Control Act requires s if Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on a $1 trillion plan to cut the nation’s debt. On New Year’s Day, Congress voted to push the deadline to avoid sequestration back two months, to March 1.
Defense Department comptroller Robert Hale, in a speech this month, said the continuing resolution, plus the sequestration threat and decisions by Congress to block department cost-saving initiatives such as higher Tricare fees for retirees and retiring older ships, have destabilized budget planning.
“In more than three decades of working in and around the defense budget,” Hale said, “I have never seen a period facing any greater budgetary uncertainty.”
House committee chairman McKeon, in a statement, acknowledged the turmoil created by the resolution and sequestration. He described the 28-star letter as “serious, and it is my hope that it serves as a wake-up call.”
But then McKeon, who pledged like so many Republicans never to raise taxes, said he hoped a copy of the Joint Chiefs’ letter had been sent to the Oval Office because President Barack Obama shares blame for lack of a debt deal.
Operating under a continuing resolution, facing sequestration and perhaps facing even deeper defense cuts if House Republicans refuse to raise the debt ceiling in March, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a Pentagon press conference recently “we have no idea what the hell’s going to happen.”
That’s why, he said, the services need to reduce spending immediately to try to protect force readiness through this period of great uncertainty.
A period of uncertainty, he might have added, manufactured by politicians and delivered like a Bronx cheer to troops still at war.
Write Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, or email milupdate Tom Philpott @Military_Update.