Budget uncertainty complicates readiness recovery, Dempsey says

DOD photo/D. Myles Cullen

WASHINGTON, September 23, 2015 — A central aspect of Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey’s term as chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff has been budget uncertainty.

Dempsey took office soon after the passage of the Budget Control Act of 2011. The act was specifically designed to be so onerous that it would force Congress to act together rather than trigger the gun called sequestration.

That didn’t happen. In 2013, sequestration happened. That first year, DOD civilian employees were furloughed, military units found themselves without training money, squadrons were grounded and ships were tied to piers rather than sailing.

While Congress provided relief in 2014 and 2015, the Budget Control Act remains the law of the land and could still be triggered.

“It’s been challenging,” the chairman said during a recent interview. “When the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were beginning to wind down, the Joint Chiefs of Staff all said that it would take several years to recover from the tempo of the previous 10 years, and in particular that we needed to recover some lost skills.”

Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military had become the most skilled force in the world on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. But these skills came at a price: high-end capabilities to deter peer competitors suffered, the chairman said. Decisive maneuver — the integration of air and ground affects — was one example of a skill that had atrophied. In the air, the Air Force needed to recover the ability to dominate in air-to-air combat.

Readiness Suffered Under Budget Control Act

Because of the Budget Control Act, readiness money was diverted to other needs, the chairman said.

Readiness – that combination of personnel, training and equipment that produces capability — suffered even as the pace of operations grew. “We had a period of prolonged commitments,” Dempsey said. “Those commitments have both taxed the force in terms of [operational] tempo.”

While readiness has improved from where it was, “it’s not where it needs to be,” the general said.

Particular parts of the force, he said, have been taxed: Patriot batteries, Marine aviation, remotely piloted aircraft. “The list goes on and on,” the chairman said. “Those men and women have been operating at an even higher operational tempo.”

It’s a measure of the caliber of the people in the military that the force is responding as well as it is, Dempsey said. “It’s remarkable, actually. It keeps rolling along and it keeps getting the job done,” he said. “But the budget uncertainty has not allowed us to recover the readiness we need to recover at the pace we need to recover it.”

Budget certainty is one key to recovering readiness, the chairman said. “The threats that we face are increasing,” he said. “So this budget uncertainty exacerbates what is already a pretty challenging circumstance.”

Time is another key. “If we have to reduce the budget, spread it out as opposed to imposing it one year at a time and through a series of continuing resolutions,” Dempsey said.

Finally, the chairman would like Congress to give DOD more budget flexibility. “We’ve been challenged by our elected leaders to reform and to become more efficient and to eliminate excesses,” he said. “And we’ve tried.”

DOD has proposed a number of efforts that Congress has not allowed, the chairman said. These include another round of base closure and realignment, a slowing of the increases in pay and benefits, changes to the military health system and retiring older systems and platforms.

“If you bake the savings into your budget, because you have to meet all of the requirements and maintain a balance of capability, capacity and readiness, and then you don’t get the reforms and the money that comes with them, you’ve got to find it someplace,” Dempsey said. “And normally where you have to go find it is in readiness.”

It has been tough on the men and women serving today, but they are powering through it, the chairman said.

“God bless them, they continue to be great Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen,” he said.