WASHINGTON, March 5, 2014 – The defense strategic guidance can work under the president’s fiscal year 2015 budget request for the Defense Department, but if steep spending cuts associated with a budget sequester return in fiscal 2016, all bets are off, senior defense officials said at a Pentagon news conference today.
DOD Comptroller Robert F. Hale and Christine E. Wormuth, the deputy undersecretary of defense for strategy, plans and force development, spoke about the fiscal 2015 budget submission and the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, respectively.
Both cautioned about the return of sequestration, which, as was the case last year, would impose strict, across the board cuts in government spending.
“While we firmly believe at the president’s budget level we can execute this strategy, I think it’s fair to say that we believe that if we return to sequester level cuts in ’16, that we will be facing a significantly higher level of risk,” Wormuth said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has stressed that a return to sequestration in 2016 would pose unacceptable risks to DOD’s ability to provide national security.
Sequestration would require the services to cut force levels below what leaders consider to be safe. It also would endanger long-term security by forcing cuts to modernization. Defense officials think this would cripple America’s ability to keep pace with technologically advanced adversaries, Wormuth said.
“Readiness would be a serious problem,” she added. “It’s been a serious challenge for us in the last couple of years. We would not be able … to recover the readiness levels that we need.”
Readiness shortfalls would endanger operations with allies and partners and would affect DOD’s ability to respond promptly to a crisis, she said.
“So I think our view is that the combined effects to capacity, capability and readiness that we would experience under prolonged sequestration would significantly raise the risks of our ability to execute this defense strategy,” Wormuth said. “That’s why the president has asked for about $115 billion more than sequester level caps.”
Hale specifically pointed to service end strengths under sequestration. The president’s budget calls for reducing Army end strength to between 440,000 and 450,000 soldiers by the end of fiscal 2019. Sequestration would push that down to 420,000 and the Marine Corps to 175,000 – too small to fully implement U.S. strategy, he said.
But the department has to plan for the lower number, he added, because “we don’t know what Congress is going to do. Sequestration is the law. We can’t be sure where we’re going to end up.”
The same would happen with aircraft carriers. The Navy now has 10, and will have 11 again when the USS Gerald R. Ford comes on line in 2016. “With sequester, we’ll have to go back to 10 by decommissioning the George Washington,” Hale said.
Many critics, the comptroller noted, say DOD is crying wolf, and that sequester spending cuts weren’t so bad last year.
“We didn’t cry wolf,” Hale emphatically stated. “We shut down for three months 12 combat-coded Air Force squadrons and stopped them from flying. And it will take us probably a year or more to recover from that. “We stopped many Army units from going through the combat training centers.” The Army stopped most of its training above squad level.
“I mean, we did bad things,” Hale continued. “We furloughed 650,000 people, delayed depot work — had a number of other adverse effects, not to mention seriously … damaging the morale of our civilian workforce.”
The department will have more time to plan for sequestration if there is no relief in fiscal 2016, but it still would damage the force, Hale said.