Defense Department civilian and military leaders gave full details last week of the readiness crisis unfolding across America's armed forces, and got back not a whit of reassurance from Congress that relief is on the way.
Members of the once-powerful House and Senate armed services committees spoke as though resigned to the notion that U.S. forces could be hollowed out over the next several years due to political gridlock and a now infamous "sequestration" gimmick that made a hostage of the defense budget, then wounded it, during failed debt reduction negotiations.
Despite hours of dark testimony by defense leaders about DoD's deepest budget hit since the end of World War II, lawmakers offered no solutions.
Many committee members merely continued to carp at one another, and at President Obama, over who should bear the most blame.
"I used to say I was hopeful and optimistic," said Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. "Then I said I was just hopeful. Now I'm not even hopeful because we are only two weeks away from (sequestration.)"
That happens on March 1, when the department will have to absorb another $46 billion in spending cuts through the final seven months of fiscal 2013, which ends Sept. 30.
Rather than propose a relief plan, Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, announced that "now it appears that this self-inflicted wound (of sequestration) is poised to cripple our military forces in just a few days."
"The president is not blameless," McKeon said. "His negotiators put sequestration on the table during the long fight over the debt ceiling. We are not blameless either. Many of us voted for this terrible mechanism in the naive hope the president and Congress could put our politics aside and fix our debt crisis. That was a bad bet."
McKeon asked Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, if he stood by his statement of last April that the services cannot accept deeper defense cuts than $487 billion over 10 years agreed to in 2011 and still carry out the current Asia-Pacific defense strategy.
"Do I stand by my statement of last year? No," said Dempsey. "I am now jumping up and down. This is not about standing next to anything. We are on the verge of a readiness crisis due to an unprecedented convergence of factors … the prolonged specter of sequestration while under a continuing resolution while we are just beginning to absorb $487 billion worth of cuts from 2011, and while we're still fighting and resourcing a war."
Dempsey said other factors also make this drawdown period for defense spending and force strength "more difficult and decidedly different than at any other point in our history. There is no peace dividend. The security environment is more dangerous and more uncertain. Most of our equipment is older and aging fast. End strength caps (imposed by Congress) limit our ability to shape the force. And health care costs are reaching unsustainable levels," Dempsey said.
So sequestration, which will cut defense by another $500 billion over the decade, "will upend our defense strategy," Dempsey warned. "It will put the nation at greater risk of coercion and it will require us to break commitments to the men and women in uniform and their families, to our defense industrial base and to our partners and allies."
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: email@example.com