The Army's top officer told Congress on Wednesday that he would have to cancel nearly every new weapons system now planned if automatic, across-the-board spending cuts of $1 trillion-plus hit the Pentagon.
"Cuts of this magnitude would be catastrophic to the military and, in the case of the Army, would significantly reduce our capability and capacity to assure our partners abroad, respond to crises, and deter our potential adversaries, while threatening the readiness of, potentially, the all-volunteer force," Gen. Raymond Odierno said.
His dire warning came before the House Armed Services Committee, which is holding hearings to show how "sequestration," as it is called, would devastate the all-volunteer force of 2.2 million active and reserve troops.
Committee Chairman Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, California Republican, and Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the panel's ranking Democrat, are both trying to hold Pentagon spending cuts to the already agreed-to $465 billion over the next 10 years.
But sequestration would drain an additional $585 billion from the Pentagon if Congress' ad hoc supercommittee fails to reach a deal on tax increases and spending cuts by Thanksgiving — or if Congress fails to act on the deal.
"The problem is that to date, defense has contributed more than half of the deficit-reduction measures we've taken, and there are some who want to use the military to pay for the rest, to protect the sacred cow that is entitlement spending," Mr. McKeon said.
Mr. Smith said just meeting the agreed-to cuts "will be a great challenge, but it is wrong to think that the defense budget has somehow been held apart from our debt and deficit problems. Quite the opposite, it's been in front and center."
Gen. Odierno, the Army chief of staff who commanded all troops in Iraq, appeared before the committee with the three other service chiefs — the four-star generals whose main charge is to keep the force ready to deploy and fight.
They testified of the grim future that automatic budget cuts would bring: a drastically smaller force, few new weapons, irreversible damage to the arms industry and an inability to respond to world crises.
The Army chief of staff testified that sequestration would "almost eliminate our modernization programs" — a reference to plans to buy the $25 billion Ground Combat Vehicle to replace the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and the $54 billion Joint Light Tactical Vehicle to replace the Humvee, as well as other systems to better protect troops against enemy explosives.
Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, said there are just two Navy shipbuilders in the U.S. today, down from six in 1998. Sequestration could make it difficult for them to survive, he said.
For nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers, the admiral said, the private component producers have just one customer — the Navy.
"So if we interrupt that, I don't know how many of these we lose or how we reconstitute it," Adm. Greenert said. "Just don't know … Giving them a holiday is probably not going to work."
To keep sufficient funds to build nuclear-powered ships, the Navy would be forced to cut the size of the overall fleet and force sailors and ships to go to sea more often, he said.
The committee's Republican staff has estimated that the Navy fleet would shrink from 300 to 238 ships.
On that theme, Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, said the nation may lose forever the industrial ability to produce vertical take-off and landing aircraft, such as the Corps' Harrier fighter, and the tilt-rotor aircraft Osprey.
"There's not another nation in the world," Gen. Amos said. "So if those lines were closed, that becomes terminal. That will become irreversible. You will not be able to gain that back."
Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff, said the new F-35 strike fighter and the KC-46, which refuels war planes in battle, also would be in jeopardy under sequestration.
The Air Force, he said, "as a matter of simple physical limitation, it will be able to accomplish fewer tasks in fewer places in any given period of time."
Said Mr. Smith: "One thing's absolutely clear. We're not going to have more economic opportunity in this country if we have less influence in the world. It doesn't work that way."
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