- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The administration’s repeated claims that America is safer now under President Obama are undermining his own efforts to reach a compromise to undo sequestration budget cuts to the military, lawmakers told top Defense Department officials Tuesday.

The top civilian and uniformed officials at the Pentagon asked Congress to end sequestration and boost defense spending by $38 billion next year, saying troop readiness and national security are being harmed.

“It is what we need to remain at the lower ragged edge of manageable risk in our ability to execute the defense strategy,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey said at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “There is no slack, no margin left for error nor for response to strategic surprise.”

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Senators said they agreed the Defense Department needs more money, but said mixed messages from the White House are making that case tougher.

“When we hear the disconnect between different members of the administration on what threat levels are and how the president in many ways paints benign picture of what’s happening in the world … it undermines credibility with what we’re trying to do bolstering our national defense,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, Alaska Republican.

In one example, Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, told House lawmakers earlier Tuesday that U.S. forces are making progress in the effort to defeat the Islamic State and can complete the mission without the use of ground forces.

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“In fact, we’re about where we said we would be in the execution of our military campaign plan,” Gen. Austin told the House Armed Services Committee. “We are having significant effects on the enemy.”

Since airstrikes began seven months ago, Gen. Austin said U.S. strikes have killed more than 8,500 Islamic State militants, eliminated the group’s primary source of revenue in oil refineries and degraded leaders ability to command and control the terrorist troops.

But the general said funding cuts could hamper the military’s ability to keep up the pressure.

“I remain concerned that capability reductions can and will effect our ability to respond to crises,” he said. “The resulting loss of flexibility makes the U.S. and our interests increasingly vulnerable.”

When questioned on the need for American boots on the ground, Gen. Austin said he felt confident that the Islamic State could be defeated without them because working with local forces in Iraq has been successful.

Even as the U.S. faces tight budgets that could constrain its military efforts, other countries are also cutting back.

American troops are scheduled to completely withdraw from Afghanistan and turn security over to local troops in 2017, but the Afghan National Army is losing soldiers, with more than 15,000 fleeing the service in the last year alone, according to a new Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction report.

Fewer than 170,000 soldiers now make up the Afghan National Army — its lowest level since August 2011.

In his first appearance before Congress in his new role, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that allies are often too polite to ask questions about America’s fiscal troubles, but often worry that the problems will affect America’s ability to protect its friends around the world.

“It is distressing to me because they hear everything we say and they see everything we do and they get a very clear picture of the dangers of sequester,” he said. “This isn’t good for our friends.”

Sens. John McCain and Jack Reed said they think the department should get an even larger budget than the president’s request in fiscal 2016, and supported a $577 billion plan for the department.

“Continuing to live with the unacceptable effect of sequestration is a choice. Sequestration is a law but Congress makes the laws. We can choose to end the debilitating effects of sequestration,” said Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, who serves as the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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