Automatic defense spending cuts set to begin Friday will hurt troops’ morale, readiness and their families and could damage the Pentagon’s ability to recruit an all-volunteer force, military chiefs told Congress on Tuesday.
Soldiers will have “degraded access to medical care” because the cuts will result in furloughs of more than 250,000 Army civilians, including those who staff military medical facilities, said Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the Army chief of staff.
Soldiers’ tuition assistance, military elementary school, day care programs and spouse employment services also would be affected by the cuts, he told the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.
“Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines — they’ll do anything for us. They’ll deploy on no notice,” Gen. Odierno said. “And the one thing they want us to do is take care of their families.”
The Pentagon is preparing to chop $500 billion from its budget over the next decade under an automatic spending-cut plan called sequestration that begins Friday. The Pentagon plans to furlough about 750,000 civilian workers for 22 days, suspend training for troops stationed in the United States and delay equipment maintenance.
If Congress fails to pass a 2013 defense appropriations bill, the Pentagon will be forced to stick to 2012 funding levels under a continuing resolution that expires March 27. Sequestration would force the Pentagon to slash $46 billion from its budget by Sept. 30.
“Sequestration does not hurt things. It hurts our people,” said Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos.
The Marine Corps has not laid out how many civilians would be furloughed if the defense cuts take effect, but 95 percent of those civilians are employed outside the Washington region, Gen. Amos said. They include mechanics who repair military vehicles, therapists who care for wounded Marines and teachers at military schools.
“The economic impact to these families and their local communities are put at risk by short-term furlough and long-term termination,” he said. “The all-volunteer force is going to feel the strain over the next couple of years.”
“We don’t want to reduce these, but we have no choice because it’s a combination of the civilian furlough and civilian reduction that causes this, as well as the reduced funding to our installations,” Gen. Odierno added.
Although military pay and health care benefits are exempt from sequestration, military reservists who are also Defense Department civilian workers will be affected by furloughs.
Army Gen. Frank Grass, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said the services are working on exceptions to the furloughs to submit to the Pentagon comptroller by Friday, although he said he expected those positions will be “pretty thin.”
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III said he is worried about recruitment and retention of airmen.
“They’re paying attention. They are concerned. They know that there is an impact coming. They just don’t know how it affects them,” he said.
“They’re not worried about the capability of the United States Air Force. They’re worried about impacts to them, their unit and their family. I think it has to have an impact over time.”
Members of Congress said they are working on ways to give the Pentagon chiefs some flexibility from the sequestration law, which requires across-the-board cuts as part of a 2011 federal debt deal.
“I believe sequestration is both terrible politics and terrible policy,” said Rep. Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, who proposed the flexibility plan two weeks ago.
“These cuts will gravely impair the Defense Department’s mission capabilities, troop training, equipment and supply lines, research and development efforts and our overall readiness,” he said.