Joint Chiefs chairman nominee warns against $800 billion in Defense cuts


Cutting defense by nearly $1 trillion to reduce the deficit would be harmful to America’s national security, according to Gen. Martin Dempsey, President Obama’s nominee for top military officer.

Dempsey broke with the man he would replace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, and on Tuesday offered senators a different assessment of the nation’s top threat.

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“I wouldn’t describe our economic condition as the single biggest threat to national security,” Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “There are a lot of clear and present threats to our security in the current operational environment. … National security didn’t cause the debt crisis, nor will it solve it.”

Mullen has for months made clear his belief that “our national debt is our biggest national security problem.” His position has been cited by Republicans eager to slice federal government spending, as well as by Democrats who want big cuts to the Pentagon.

Dempsey acknowledged that “the national debt is a grave concern,” but cautioned against large defense cuts to help fix Washington’s balance sheet.

“Our national power is the aggregate of our diplomatic, military and economic influence,” Dempsey said. “We have to address our economic stature, but that doesn’t mean we can neglect the other instruments of national power.”

Obama has directed $400 billion in national security cuts between 2013 and 2023, beginning with an $80 billion cut across the security apparatus next year. Several debt-reduction ideas in play on Capitol Hill right now would double that amount.

The Gang of Six’s deficit-reduction plan, for instance, would cut almost $890 billion from national security spending over 10 years.

Dempsey’s warnings about defense cuts larger than Obama’s $400 billion were echoed later Tuesday by the vice chiefs of the military services. Several of them told the House Armed Services Readiness subcommittee that their services need more — not less — annual funding.

Marine Corps Assistant Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford said that service needs around $12 billion to reset its equipment after nearly a decade of war.

Adm. Jonathan Greenert, vice chief of naval operations, said the Navy has calculated it would need about $700 million to carry out a growing list of maintenance work on its ships and aircraft. Greenert has been tapped to become chief of naval operations.

Air Force Vice Chief Gen. Phillip Breedlove said defense cuts larger than $400 billion would force a “fundamental” change in how the service meets its part of the military’s mission, and force it to reduce “capacity,” meaning equipment.

That sentiment was echoed by Army Vice Chief Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who said bigger reductions would require his service do a “major reassessment” of how it carries out its missions.

All the service chiefs told the subcommittee that they are currently unable to meet all the needs of the military’s regional combatant commanders. And if forced into massive budget cuts, that problem would only get worse, they warned. 

The vice chiefs’ comments came before a subcommittee of the hawkish House Armed Services Committee, which appears to be the last bastion of support on Capitol Hill for maintaining the defense spending spree that started after the 9/11 attacks. 

The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), warned cuts larger than $400 billion would lead to the “dismantling of the greatest military the world has ever known.” 

Senate Armed Services Committee leaders made clear Tuesday that Defense Department budget cuts larger than those already directed by Obama are likely. Some former national security budget officials and defense analysts said Obama’s $400 billion cut is the best the Pentagon and other national security agencies could hope for.

Dempsey, currently the Army chief of staff, told the panel the U.S. military is entering “a new fiscal reality.” But he warned that an $800 billion or larger reduction over 10 years would generate “risks” to national security.

The top members of the Armed Services panel offered a glimpse of the differences many congressional Democrats and Republicans have on Pentagon spending and paring the $14 trillion deficit.

Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said “most everyone agrees that the Defense Department cannot be immune from efforts to [put] our fiscal house in order.”

But ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) said such factors as “out-of-control entitlement spending” — not Pentagon spending — are most responsible for driving America to the brink of defaulting on its obligations. He also questioned why Obama has ordered the Pentagon and other agencies to cut specific amounts without first finishing an ongoing national security strategy review.