Deep, across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to take effect March 1 will have real national security consequences, the Defense Department’s top civilian and its senior military official said Feb. 6.
In a meeting with reporters, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addressed the looming crisis. The cuts – known as “sequestration” – will take place unless Congress acts to override the provision built into budget law that would mean cutting $52 billion from the defense budget by Sept. 30.
“This is not something that should be done as a way to blame the other party for what happens,” Panetta said. “This is going to hurt the United States and hurt our defense.”
The mere threat of sequestration already is affecting operations. The Defense Department postponed the deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) and cruiser USS Gettysburg (CG 64) because of budget considerations.
“This won’t be the last adjustment we will make to our global presence,” Dempsey said. “It is our first, because the deployment is imminent.” With the action, the department is trying to preserve readiness as long as possible, he explained.
“We’re trying to stretch our readiness out by keeping this particular carrier in homeport in our global response force, so if something happens elsewhere in the world, we can respond to it,” the chairman said. “Had we deployed it and ‘consumed’ that readiness, we could have created a situation where downstream we wouldn’t have a carrier present in certain parts of the world at all.”
The USS Harry S. Truman was to have deployed to the Persian Gulf – an area where the U.S. Navy has maintained two carrier battle groups. One carrier group will remain, “and we also have other options to augment our capabilities in the region,” Dempsey said.
“But make no mistake about it,” he added, “this is the first adjustment of what will be a series of adjustments across the services as we try to preserve our readiness for as long as possible.”
Cancelling the deployment does change the equation in the Middle East, Dempsey told reporters.
“When you have carrier-based aircraft, you have complete autonomy and control over when you use them,” he said. “When you use land-based aircraft, you often have to have host-nation permission to use them. So the increased risk is not in the number or type of capabilities – it’s in how responsive they can be with the autonomy that we might desire.
“Would I prefer to have two carriers in the Gulf, given the tension with Iran? Sure I would,” the general continued. “But this allows us to meet the requirements in the Gulf and manage the risk and preserve readiness.”
Concerns about readiness span all services. Dempsey said the department will spend all it takes to ensure the forces deployed or getting ready to deploy will have all they need.
“It’s actually the time after [the next deployment] where it really gets difficult,” he said. “We don’t want to get into the position where we have to extend deployments or deploy someone who is not ready to deploy. We’re not anywhere near there, but the near-term actions we are taking are intended to preserve and stretch readiness as long as possible so we don’t face that eventuality.”
The changes being made now also enable the department to reverse them if sequestration doesn’t happen and the Defense Department gets a full appropriation, Panetta noted.
Dempsey said the military needs budget certainty, noting that the budget process has been laced with uncertainty for the past two years.
“We need time,” he said. “Given 10 years to spread reductions, we can manage it. When you have to absorb … $52 billion [in spending cuts] over six months, that’s not enough time – which is why you raid the accounts that are most vulnerable: the readiness accounts.”
The budget process also needs flexibility, Dempsey said.
“We have to have the ability…to reach into every part of the budget,” he explained, “so no one part of the budget is overburdened or else the force gets out of balance.