The U.S. armed services, widely recognized as the world’s most ready and mobile military, is painting a picture of itself as a stagnant force trapped at home under automatic spending cuts just three weeks away.
Army brigades won’t be ready to fight. Navy aircraft carriers won’t be deployed. The Air Force won’t be able to operate radar surveillance 24 hours a day.
The dire scenarios are contained in a series of memos sent to Congress and obtained by The Washington Times. They stir memories of the late 1970s, when the Army declared itself a “hollow force” because depleted combat units could not perform in a war.
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In the current instance, an Army memo uses the physiological term “atrophy” to underscore a warning that it will not be able to command brigade combat teams that can respond to hot spots outside of Afghanistan and South Korea.
“The strategic impact is a rapid atrophy of unit combat skills with a failure to meet demands of the National Military Strategy by the end of this year,” the Army wrote in a recent memo to Capitol Hill.
The Pentagon’s warnings are intended to prod Congress and President Obama to reach a deal that averts “sequestration” — automatic, across-the-board spending cuts set to begin March 1 that would remove up to $500 billion from the projected 10-year defense budget.
The debate moves to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, when the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testify in person on what their memos predict.
The Pentagon already has cut more than $480 billion from its 10-year budget and is operating under a continuing resolution that holds spending at 2012 levels. Under sequestration, the Pentagon would have to cut an additional $42 billion by Sept. 30 and as much as $500 billion over the next 10 years.
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If sequestration were to occur briefly before politicians finally reach a deal that kills it, the damage to military training and forces would be minimal. But if it were to remain in place for several years, the smaller military budgets would squeeze out ships, planes and troops.
“What it would mean is a smaller military,” said Todd Harrison, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment. “It would be a military that would not be able to do all the missions it is supposed to be able to do today. That’s the bottom line.”
Perhaps the Air Force’s quick review of a sequestered budget is the scariest. In its “Sequestration Implementation Plan,” the Air Force notes a lack of trained employees to manage “the nuclear enterprise,” referring to its arsenal of atomic missiles and bombs.
To meet a nearly $14 billion shortfall this year, the Air Force would reduce worldwide military communications, stop testing some weapons and cut flying hours, which would produce a less-ready fighter and bomber fleet.
“Mitigating [overseas operations] shortfall and sequestration will have drastic/long lasting impacts,” the Air Force states.
Said Mr. Harrison: “It means a smaller force all around. Some possible contingencies have to take on more risks. They won’t be able to respond as quickly or with as many forces if the military has to get smaller.”
The Navy is not using only briefing papers to drive home the point.
Last week, it announced the postponement of the $3.3 billion overhaul and refueling of the nuclear-powered carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. The news came a few days after the Navy had sent another alarming signal, saying the carrier USS Harry S. Truman strike group would not sail to the Middle East this month as previously scheduled.
Defense analysts ask what kind of message does that send to Iran, which the U.S. and Europe suspect is in quest of nuclear weapons?
“Long before the full impact of sequestration is felt, the hollowing out of the U.S. military is already under way,” said defense analyst Frank Gaffney, a senior defense official in President Reagan’s administration and now president of the Center for Security Policy, a national security and defense policy organization. “It will prove devastating to the security of the United States by emboldening our enemies, undermining our friends and allies, and eviscerating our ability to deter and defeat the former and to join forces with the latter in defense of freedom.”
Keeping the USS Truman at home was predicted in a memo to all fleet admirals last month from Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, chief of naval operations.
If sequestration hits, the memo said, the only way to meet the roughly 9 percent shrinkage in this year’s spending would be to stop training and exercises for units not scheduled to deploy and reduce naval presence overseas — a reality that already has occurred with the Truman’s postponement.
“Once we shut down our sustainment training, it will take our ships and squadrons about nine months to conduct the maintenance and training needed to be certified to deploy again,” Adm. Greenert said.
Winslow Wheeler, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, which pushes for lower defense spending and canceling weapons programs, argues that a budget of $530 billion today will revert to 2007 levels under which the Pentagon seemed to do fine.
Mr. Wheeler said that, in a run-up to sequestration, the Pentagon continued to fund big weapons, such as the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and now claims it has no choice but to loot maintenance and training funds.
“Their prioritizing procurement and research and development above the sharp end shows their distorted priorities,” he said. “They have it exactly wrong. They need to get the junk out of the procurement budget, like the F-35, to enable adequate funding for what’s important. Clearly, these people need to be replaced.”