A top Marine Corps general told Congress on Thursday that cutting the Corps to 150,000 Marines, as some analysts project, would mean it could not fulfill its mission during a major war, or respond adequately to crises and humanitarian disasters around the world.
"A hundred and fifty thousand would put us below the level that's necessary to support a single contingency," said Gen. Joseph Dunford, who as assistant commandant is the nation's No. 2 Marine.
Furthermore, the Marines, known as America's 911 response force, would be limited in carrying out an array of special missions.
"We will not be there to deter our potential adversaries," he told the House Armed Services subcommittee on readiness. "We won't be there to assure our potential friends or to assure our allies. And we certainly won't be there to contain small crises before they become major conflagrations."
The Pentagon is searching for $465 billion in cuts over 10 years as man dated by a Congress-White House budget deal. If a congressional supercommittee can't agree on a larger debt-reduction road map, the Pentagon would face another $450 billion slash, a move that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has said will lead to a "hollow" military.
Gen. Dunford made his stark warning about diminishing Marine Corps capabilities amid news reports that the supercommittee is not close to an agreement as the Nov. 23 deadline approaches.
A committee Republican staff memo says the Marine Corps stands at 202,000 troops and is slated to shrink to 173,000 under current planning. But if the supercommittee fails to reach an agreement, the Corps would be forced to cut another 28,000 Marines to 145,000, the memo said.
The Republican-led subcommittee has been conducting a series of hearings on the global impact of a reduced U.S. military. Mr. Panetta told the full committee this month that sharp cuts will force him to limit presence in some parts of the world, including Africa.
Traveling in Asia on Thursday, Mr. Panetta told reporters that the next five-year budget submitted to Congress in February will contain $260 billion in cuts, according to Reuters.
"I think it's important to note that we've never done this before," testified Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff, referring to Afghanistan and Iraq. "We've never fought for 10 years. We've never fought with an entirely volunteer force. That force is amazingly resilient, but at the same time, it is strained. Its equipment is strained, soldiers are strained, families are strained."
Gen. Philip Breedlove, the Air Force vice chief, testified that his service is operating fewer aircraft today than during the 1991 Desert Storm air war.
"We're flying the oldest fleet that the Air Force has ever flown, and we do need to desperately get to recapitalization during this age of fiscal austerity," he said.
The Air Force is banking on the F-35 Lightning strike fighter to replace aging F-16s. But cost overruns may force the Pentagon to scale back plans for buying the aircraft.
Gen. Chiarelli, whose Army may lose as many as eight combat brigade teams, raised the specter of repeating the mistakes of post-World War II and post-Vietnam. Both times, the military sank into a posture of diminished preparedness for fighting wars.
"I think that it's very important to look at the history of how we've done," the four-star Army general said. "We're repeating a cycle here that is something that has happened many, many times in our history."
Mr. Panetta told sailors aboard the command ship USS Blue Ridge in Yokosuka, Japan, on Wednesday that he is committed to protecting the military from declining because of budget constraints.
"I commit to you, and I've been in touch with our service chiefs and work with them every day, all of us are committed to maintaining the best military in the world. And we will do that," he said.
Mr. Panetta said he plans to "protect" the military from drastic cuts and make sure it does not become a hollow force.
"We're going to make sure we never hollow out the force," he said. "That's a mistake that's been made in the past; we're not going to make that mistake now."
Subcommittee Chairman J. Randy Forbes, Virginia Republican, said the budget cuts could prove "devastating to the military."
"I remain concerned that we may have already gone too far," he said. "Over the last 20 months, the department has reduced its 10-year budget authority by $754 billion from the levels submitted with the president's budget for fiscal year 2011.
"It has already canceled many of its most advanced systems like the CG(X) next-generation cruiser program, the F-22, the Army's future combat systems, and the transformational satellite program … among others."
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