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Dire sequestration warnings set off debate

Mar. 11, 2013 - 10:38AM   |  
The aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman performs a full power run and rudder swing checks during sea trials in July. The Truman Carrier Strike Group's deployment was canceled in February over budget matters.
The aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman performs a full power run and rudder swing checks during sea trials in July. The Truman Carrier Strike Group's deployment was canceled in February over budget matters. (MC3 Kristina Young / Navy)
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WASHINGTON — The United States’ top military officers have warned that sequestration would be “ruinous” for national security. They warned of an era of scant training and little maintenance on aging combat systems. And they warned that a new national defense strategy would be unworkable.

To hear the top generals and admirals tell it, the U.S. military would be reduced to regional-power status.

And in today’s hyperpartisan political environment, such statements have launched a debate as to whether defense leaders “hyped” the effects of the sequestration cuts, which were triggered March 1.

“It can’t be this kind of political deal where you cut the things that cause the biggest publicity, like we’ve seen,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. “We need leadership over there that manages the money wisely, and doesn’t hype things.”

And several lawmakers and analysts questioned why the civilian service secretaries who occupy more of a political realm — as opposed to apolitical senior military officers — weren’t the ones delivering the dramatic statements.

One senior Democratic lawmaker said the generals’ and admirals’ tactics were reminiscent of the dramatics typically reserved for Capitol Hill.

“Maybe they did [exaggerate claims] — but I don’t think anyone around here can say a word about over-embellishing,” the Democratic member said, while taking a shot at congressional colleagues.

Several defense analysts and former officials noted the generals’ and admirals’ most troubling warnings were delivered as a package deal. The message from the officers was the threats were part of a set multi-course menu, not a la carte.

Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, a Senate Armed Services Committee member, after listening to several hours of warnings from America’s top officers, acknowledged the military leaders were describing as necessary each step they claim would be enacted.

Asked whether critics had a point about hyping threats and misleading the committee about the number of steps they would have to take, Udall sidestepped the question. “It’s my job to listen to what they have to say, then sit down and analyze that,” Udall said.

Pentagon officials, however, bristle at such charges, countering that sequestration guidance — that exempted military pay — left them little wiggle room to cut $46 billion over the coming six months, forcing deep reductions in operations and maintenance accounts, as well as civilian furloughs. A familiar complaint by senior defense officials is that their warnings over the past 18 months that sequestration cuts would, over time, badly damage military capabilities were ignored, but once they issued detailed guidance, they’re being labeled as alarmists.

‘Not That Hard’

Asked by Defense News whether the generals and admirals went too far, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., revealed that in private conversations “some of — not all, OK — the national security guys who have come to see me say, ‘Corker, after the next seven months it’s not that hard to manage,’ because then they can work with the appropriators. It goes back to the normal process.”

And Sessions took umbrage with the Pentagon’s furlough threats.

“They claim 90,000 people would be furloughed. That is a very serious problem,” Sessions said. “But it’s one day. They’re not 90,000 laid off. They’re reducing their work from five days to four, which is unwise and not a smart way to manage at all, but ... .”

Among the first lawmakers to speak up about the Pentagon’s warnings was Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran and a House Armed Services Committee member.

In a Feb. 12 letter to Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Hunter charged military brass with “adding drama” to the sequestration process by making moves guaranteed to get headlines, but otherwise unnecessary. Hunter told Carter there are “other programs that are worthy of cost cuts or even elimination” than some of the steps military leaders warned Congress they would take.

“Decisions of particular concern include not deploying the USS Harry Truman to the Persian Gulf; not refueling the USS Abraham Lincoln, thus making it unavailable in a crisis; the suspension of mission-critical training and equipment maintenance; and withholding the deployment of Marines to strategic regions in the Pacific,” Hunter told Carter.

‘We Don’t Do Drama’

The Navy’s top spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby, penned an op-ed in Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot newspaper in late February to answer critics of the decision to keep the ship here.

“Look, military leaders don’t make decisions to make a point. We don’t do drama. And we don’t involve ourselves in political debates,” Kirby wrote. “We provide options to civilian leaders that help them better protect and defend Americans. And that’s exactly what delaying the Truman allows us all to do.”

Navy officials and sources also have said that the service asked former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to waive the requirement to maintain two carriers in the gulf to stretch ever-limited training funds and to keep from prematurely depleting the nuclear cores of carriers that have been steaming at higher-than-anticipated rates for workup and deployment.

Military officials’ warnings mostly have come in the form of written and oral testimony, memos, and in other public comments. Analysts say the department has released little supporting data that shows the generals’ arithmetic.

“These threats are utterly devoid of analytics. We have seen no single document of any kind showing how the analysis behind any of this was actually done,” said Gordon Adams, who ran national defense budgeting for the Clinton administration.

“The White House is allowing the [generals and admirals] to run amok,” Adams said. “I am growing increasingly worried about the civil-military relationship. Instead of exerting civilian control, which is what our national security system is based on, the civilians have aided and abetted the generals.”

‘Telling the Truth’

Not everyone on Capitol Hill and in the E-Ring agrees.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a frequent critic and harsh questioner of military leaders when they appear before the upper chamber’s Armed Services Committee, said last week: “I have confidence in our military leadership, and I believe they are telling the truth.”

House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., told Defense News on Tuesday that “I don’t think they were overstating. It was a healthy dose of apprehension, as well as caution.”

Johnson said the generals’ comments must be viewed in the context that the sequester cuts will hit all U.S. national security agencies — not just the Defense Department. “You have to look at the whole apparatus,” he said.

Senior Pentagon officials also are quick to dismiss any charges of embellishment. DoD Comptroller Robert Hale did just that when asked last week at Aviation Week’s Defense Technology & Affordability Requirements conference in Arlington, Va., whether military officials have overstated the impacts of sequestration.

Hale spoke as if this scenario plays out between now and March 27, but the sequester cuts stick and Congress extends a temporary funding bill to keep the Pentagon and other federal agencies running through Sept. 30 — rather than pass a full DoD spending bill.

If that happens, Hale said: “No, I don’t think they’re overstated under that set of assumptions.

“There will be significant cutbacks in readiness. The Army faces an 80 percent shortfall of funding in the next seven months,” Hale said. “If we can fix some of those problems then maybe [we’ll] back off.”

Some of that pain would be alleviated by a House bill passed last week that would give DoD $518.1 billion via a full 2013 budget, allowing Pentagon leaders to use the existing funds-reprogramming process to blunt the cuts. The Senate’s version matches that budget level, and goes even further than the House bill by proposing a new reprogramming process for only 2013 that would allow all federal agencies to move money among different pots. The Senate version could hit the floor as soon as this week.

Pentagon Press Secretary George Little echoed a similar tone, saying DoD leaders have been straight with lawmakers.

“The civilian and military leaders of this department have been straightforward about the effects that sequestration will have on our military and our national defense,” Little said last Tuesday. “We’ve been specific, direct and clear about the additional risk to military readiness that budgetary uncertainty imposes.”

Brett Lambert, who as the Pentagon’s industrial policy chief monitors the health of the nation’s defense and commercial suppliers, stressed that unchanged, the cuts — over time — would be devastating.

He added, however, that given they are so fresh, the impact hasn’t been truly felt yet, akin to the Titanic hitting the iceberg. Right after impact, he said, many didn’t grasp how badly things would end.

Lambert added that smaller companies are already feeling pain that’s hampering their ability to raise capital.

‘Ruinous’

Still, skeptics launched their criticism after the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and four-star chiefs of the armed services — as well as other top generals and admirals — spent much of February issuing dire warnings on both sides of the Capitol campus.

The officers talked of canceling nearly all planned training activities, furloughing nearly 100,000 civilian employees, canceling most maintenance on things like naval ships and aging Air Force planes, and shedding more troops than planned.

One of the most dramatic descriptions came Feb. 12 from Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos, who said the 10-year cut would place the military on a path that, for U.S. national security, would be “ruinous.”

Likewise, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has claimed that the service could be forced to shed up to 200,000 soldiers in coming years, bringing it to pre-World War II levels.

Case in point: When Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., asked Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey to rate on a 1-to-10 scale the negative impact of the pending cuts, he quickly responded that it would be “a 10.”

Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) director, on Feb. 27 told a House subcommittee if sequestration happens “another major intelligence failure” could occur. That rhetoric is noteworthy because the 9/11 terrorist attacks have been called just that.

Due to time constraints, the hearing went into a closed, classified session before he could be asked to publicly explain such a dire warning.

DIA declined to comment.

After the Navy announced it would keep the Truman carrier from deploying to the Middle East, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mark Ferguson explained why to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“We shut down four air wings on March 1. After 90 days, those pilots lose their certification. And now it takes six to nine months to retrain them at a much higher cost,” Ferguson said Feb. 7. “And in our assessment, it was more prudent for us to delay Truman to be able to deploy later this summer and for George Bush [carrier strike group] to deploy later this year or early next year, to provide continuous coverage in the Middle East rather than have two carriers now and then fall off completely in fiscal year [20]14.”

The Truman announcement and subsequent explanation failed to ring true to some longtime Washington hands, however.

And then came the kitchen-sink issues, such as a statement by Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Davis, the military deputy in the service’s top acquisition office. He warned a House subcommittee on Feb. 28 that sequestration means the Air Force would be unable to “maintain landscaping” at some facilities.

The same day, Army acquisition chief Heidi Shyu warned that under a sequester, “some people are not going to upgrade their kitchens.”

In a conference call on Feb. 27, Brig. Gen. Curt Rauhut, director of resource management at the Army’s Installation Management Command, warned that soldiers living on post who have a leaky roof may find that the Army may “not be able to fund that to repair that roof. We may have to just throw a tarp over it.”

He also warned that with civilian furloughs, soldiers may have to use their tactical vehicles to pick up trash.

‘Not Clear’

There has been some pushback from official budget crunchers, however. In a Feb. 7 memo to lawmakers, the Congressional Research Service’s Amy Belasco wrote that “it is not clear whether the readiness impacts cited by the services would occur under this scenario.”

Significantly, Belasco reports that among the five major DoD weapon system accounts — Army aircraft, weapons and tracked combat vehicles, Navy aircraft, Air Force aircraft, and shipbuilding — funding under the continuing resolution would actually exceed the fiscal 2013 request for everything save Army aircraft by billions of dollars, since the 2012 levels on which the continuing resolution is based were higher than the 2013 request.

The Air Force’s aircraft procurement account alone would have $1.9 billion more than requested, while Navy shipbuilding would have $1.4 billion more than the Pentagon asked for in fiscal 2013.

The Army’s weapons and tracked vehicle accounts would be funded to the tune of $581 million more than requested, and the Navy’s aircraft procurement account would boast $655 million more than requested.

Any shortfalls in spending accounts could be solved if the services requested “authority to transfer funds from other accounts assuming that Congress resolves the question of the amount of transfer authority available in the final CR,” Belasco wrote.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) suggests just such a course of action. In a recent memo, the OMB number crunchers said that if Congress added some language into law, DoD could move money between accounts, which would then allow it to “enter into multi-year procurement contracts for three programs (the CH-47F helicopter, the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke destroyer, and the V-22 Joint Aircraft Program), consistent with congressional action.

“This would allow DoD to make a commitment to contractors to procure a specific quantity of weapons systems over several years. Without this anomaly, estimated savings of approximately 10-20 percent (of the program cost) would be lost.”

Signs of Relief

As some skepticism about the officials’ warnings linger, last week brought signs of relief.

On March 4, the House Appropriations Committee released a 2013 defense appropriations bill that — despite the sequester’s spending caps — would increase the Obama administration’s Pentagon budget request. Three days later came the Senate bill, which would give agencies the proposed super-charged reprogramming authority.

On March 5, an Army spokesman said the service expects to realize overseas contingency operations (OCO) savings associated with the drawdown later this year of 34,000 of the 68,000 U.S. troops still deployed in Afghanistan.

“We expect primary savings will be driven by reductions in the number of Reserve Component Soldiers serving on active duty,” as well as reductions in hazardous duty, hostile fire, and family separation allowance, the Army spokesman said.

There also will be savings in “theater infrastructure, subsistence, and second destination and premium transportation,” the spokesman said. “We are still working to formulate OCO budget estimates to reflect the recent troop strength announcement.”

Specific budget figures, however, are not yet available.

———

Defense News staff writer Marcus Weisgerber contributed to this report.

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