CAPITOL HILL: Even the cameras stopped clicking in a hushed Armed Services hearing room today as Rep. Jim Cooper told the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his colleagues on the biggest committee in Congress today that America’s lawmakers had failed the country.
“You gentlemen make life and death decisions in the Tank almost every day,” a somber Cooper said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, looking straight at Army Gen. Ray Odierno, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh and Marine Gen. James Amos. “We are unwilling to even come up with a budget for America.”
Even the usually partisan HASC Chairman Buck McKeon, after offering a very short defense of the House and GOP’s actions on sequestration, spoke the truth to the Joint Chiefs and the packed hearing room: “It’s not your fault. It is us.”
How bad will it get if the United States Congress does not reverse the Budget Control Act, the foundation of sequestration?
Three of the four Joint Chiefs told the HASC that they would not be able to execute the most basic strategic requirement of the US military: defeating an enemy in a single major theater operation. Only Gen. Amos, Marine Commandant, said his self-sufficient force could handle one MTO, but could not handle more than that. To remind those who haven’t followed this issue closely, the American military long planned for what were called two major theater wars. While it was a chimera in many ways, it did play an important forcing function. Now we are officially down to one win and one hold, sort of.
“It’s my opinion we would struggle to meet even one major theater contingency,” Odierno testified early in the hearing. Later, each of the Joint Chiefs was asked by Rep. Randy Forbes, chairman of the HASC seapower and power projection forces subcommittee, if they could execute the military’s basic Strategic Planning Guidance, which requires that US forces be able to handle one enemy and to deter another. Down the line he went. Odierno: no; Greenert: no; Welsh: no. Amos, yes, but.
To be clear, this does not mean that America’s forces are unready now to handle its most important jobs. But if sequestration continues into 2014, the pressure on readiness and procurement funds will gradually squeeze the capabilities out of the four services.
Here’s a list of what the military could not buy or would have to defer if sequestration continues in fiscal 2014:
Navy: This is drawn from Adm. Greenert’s statement to the HASC.
One Virginia class submarine would be canceled.
Work on the first replacement for the Ohio-class nuclear missile submarines — SSBN-X — would be delayed fiscal from 2021 by one year, leaving the United States with a gap in the most crucial part of the nuclear triad.
One Littoral Combat Ship would not be bought.
Some 11 tactical aircraft – four EA-18Gs, one F-35C, one E-2D, two P-8As, three MH-60s and “about 400 weapons.”
One Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB) would not be bought.
Delivery of the USS GERALD R. FORD (CVN-78) would be delayed by two years, raising questions about whether the Navy could keep the requisite number of carriers at sea as needed.
Army: Gen. Odierno emphasized what he hasn’t been able to do already: “The Army deferred maintenance on 172 aircraft, more than 900 vehicles, almost 2,000 weapons, and over 10,000 pieces of communications equipment.”
In terms of procurement affected should sequestration continue to 2014, Odierno said combat vehicle development will slow. “In our aviation program, we cannot afford to procure a new Armed Aerial Scout program and we will be forced to reduce the production and modernization of 25 helicopters. We will reduce system upgrades for unmanned aerial vehicles. We will delay the modernization of Air Defense Command and Control systems,” he said in his statement. If things keep going to fiscal 2015, “every acquisition program will be affected.”
Air Force: While the blue suiters have not made any final decisions, Gen. Mike Hostage, head of Air Combat Command, told the Air Force Association annual conference this week that he could accept elimination of the entire 340-plane A-10 close air support fleet. Among the other options on the table: eliminating the 59-aircraft KC-10 tanker fleet; eliminating the F-15C fleet and scrapping plans to build a new $6.8 billion combat search and rescue fleet, one used by all the services.
The head of Air Force Space Command, Gen. William Shelton, captured the sense of the services yesterday when he told the AFA conference that sequestration “probably represents a bigger threat to our capabilities than anything an enemy is thinking up.”
The most eloquent expression of the military’s deepening unease and frustration with Congress’ inability to scrap sequestration did not involve any words. I asked Gen. Hostage yesterday if he believed Congress understood how much sequestration is affecting the American military’s ability to be ready and to do its job. The enormous sigh he uttered said it all.
Is there hope that Congress is getting the message and may break the sequestration mold when the debt ceiling negotiations finally happen? One GOP staffer believes there is now a chance. Until the last few days, this person did not believe there was much of a chance.