Service chiefs urge lawmakers to avoid return of budget caps

WASHINGTON (AP) — The four-star officers in charge of each U.S. military branch pleaded with lawmakers to find common ground and avoid the return of strict, across-the-board spending limits that increase the risk of sending inadequately trained and equipped troops into combat.

Testifying Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the service chiefs are providing a stark appraisal of the impact of the automatic budget caps known in Washington-speak as sequestration. An agreement last year involving Republicans and Democrats provided temporary relief from sequestration, but the limits return in the 2018 budget year.

In response to a question from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the committee chairman, all the service chiefs agreed they would not have the resources to defend the country if sequestration kicks in.

Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, said the Navy faces a “triple whammy” that stems from tighter budgets, increased operational demands and persistent uncertainty about future money. Richardson described a problem that affects all the military branches: The length and regularity of deployments wear down warfighting gear more quickly, which increases the repair workload and siphons money from other areas, such as modernization and training, to pay the bills.

“The combination of these factors has resulted in (the) Navy incurring substantial readiness debt, just like carrying debt on a credit card,” Richardson told the committee.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley estimated the ground service needs four years to get its brigade combat teams up to roughly three-quarters of what he called “full spectrum” readiness. Milley said the Army is well-prepared to deal with the Islamic State group and other extremists. The risk comes in the event of a full-scale conflict against a country such as Russia, China, Iran or North Korea, Milley said, because training and equipment for these types of operations has atrophied over the past 15 years.

“Sequestration will take the rug out from underneath us,” said Milley, who said the “ultimate sin” is to send unready troops into combat.

The Senate is gridlocked over a $575 billion defense spending bill for the budget year that begins Oct. 1. Republicans and Democrats are bickering over money for domestic programs, including efforts to combat the Zika virus. Negotiations continue between the House and Senate for a separate bill that sets defense policy and approves annual military spending levels. That legislation cannot actually allot the money the military services need to operate.

For months, Republicans have hammered the White House and the Pentagon for failing to halt a decline in the military’s ability to respond to global threats that they say have worsened on President Barack Obama’s watch. The House has voted to boost the defense budget in 2017 by shifting $18 billion in emergency wartime spending to replace aging gear with new ships, jet fighters, helicopters and more. To make up for the shortfall in the wartime account, Obama’s successor would submit a supplemental budget to Congress early next year.

But Defense Secretary Ash Carter has criticized the House plan as a “road to nowhere” that actually degrades combat readiness by retaining troops and buying equipment that can’t be sustained without the certainty of future increases, effectively creating a hollowed out force.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 set limits on how much could be spent on defense through 2021. Between 2011 and 2014, the Pentagon’s budget fell by more than $100 billion. Sequestration was triggered in 2013, forcing reductions that led to widespread concern the military services would be unprepared to fight the nation’s wars. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 provided temporary relief from the cuts.


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