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The U.S. military remains the strongest in the world, but budget cuts are forcing difficult choices that in some cases are causing the services to scale down to “bare bones,” officials told lawmakers Thursday.
On Thursday, the vice chiefs from the Army, Navy, Air Force and the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps met with Congress to present the state of their forces’ readiness.
“The current fiscal environment requires the Air Force to make choices that place readiness into direct competition with modernization,” Gen. Larry O. Spencer, vice chief of staff of the Air Force told lawmakers at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness panel.
Coming off last year’s initial phase of the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, the armed forces are still seeking a balance between maintaining superior preparedness and surviving on a smaller budget than what was granted in the earlier part of the decade.
For example, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced plans in February to reduce the Army from about 520,000 soldiers to as few as 440,000, largely due to budget constraints.
The Pentagon is also proposing a slew of cutbacks to various pay and benefits programs for active-duty troops in an effort to hold down growing personnel costs. These include capped basic pay raises, reductions in housing allowances, increases in out-of-pocket health care fees and cuts in funding for military commissaries.
This year’s defense budget totals $581.2 billion, which includes $121.7 billion for the Army, $147.3 billion for the Navy and Marine Corps and $134.7 billion for the Air Force, according to the Defense Department.
The Pentagon is seeking $575 billion for 2015.
“If we maintain funding at this level, we can continue a gradual path of readiness recovery while preserving our future readiness,” Spencer said.
But if the budget continues to be squeezed, officials at the hearing said the ability of the services to recruit and retain top-quality personnel will be threatened.
“I worry about being able to maintain the best talent as we go forward,” said Gen. John Campbell, Army vice chief of staff. “If they know that we’re not going to be able to take care of them, if they know we’re not going to have the money to provide them the best training, the moms and dads won’t have their children come to the service.”
Less than one-half of 1 percent of Americans currently serves in uniform.