Military officials launch counterattack amid talk of big defense budget cuts

Amid a hubbub over big defense budget cuts, uniformed leaders this week launched a counterattack by telling Congress the U.S. military’s equipment is worn out.

Air Force fighter jets. Army and Marine Corps vehicles. Navy war ships. All have been strained to the breaking point by a decade of war or inadequately repaired along the way, senior military officials told House and Senate panels.

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That leaves the Pentagon with two options: Get those systems into depots as soon as possible and repair what can be kept running after a historically high operational tempo. Or send those platforms to the “bone yard” and replace them with expensive new models.

Those options have one thing in common: Both are extremely expensive options at a time when sources say White House and congressional leaders are debating national security cuts that could total up to $600 billion over a decade.

This was the narrative that emerged after the military's vice chiefs of staff descended upon Capitol Hill for hours of testimony.

Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the Obama administration’s pick to be the next chief of naval operations (CNO), told House and Senate defense panels this week that he sees “indicators of stress” in the Navy fleet.

If the sea service doesn’t take steps soon to either slow its operational tempo or get more ships into maintenance, it simply will “wear out” its war vessels, said Greenert, currently the vice CNO. What’s more, if war-strained ships aren’t spruced up soon, some “won’t meet their future service life,” he told the House Armed Services Readiness subcommittee Tuesday.

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Phillip Breedlove told the House subcommittee there has been a “slow and steady decline” in the health of the Air Force’s aircraft fleet over the last several years.

Some parts of the air fleet are “aging faster” than Air Force officials anticipated.

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

Greenert says the Navy has $700 million in maintenance needs that have not been budgeted for.

Concern over the health of the military — and calls to keep funding at or above current levels — has come so far mostly from Republicans in both chambers.

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), chairman of the House Readiness subcommittee, paints perhaps the most dire portrait of the health of America’s military equipment.

The services’ sudden claims of an ill force structure, when combined with coming budget reductions, means "we may be presiding over the dismantling of the greatest military the world has ever known,” Forbes said Tuesday.

Despite the new message of a deteriorating military force structure, Democrats on the two panels continue to say large Pentagon cuts over the next decade are necessary to help remedy Washington’s fiscal ailments.

Del. Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), ranking member of the Readiness subcommittee, said Tuesday that the new reports from military leaders of a declining force structure give her pause. But her first answer to start addressing the problem was not to sustain or increase current levels of funding to relieve the strain on combat platforms. She said she would start by getting those platforms — and the entire U.S. military apparatus — out of Iraq and Afghanistan for good.

Like Forbes and other GOP lawmakers, Greenert this week used colorful rhetoric to describe his deteriorating fleet, saying the sea service is either at “an inflection point or a tipping point.”

He also told lawmakers the military needs Congress to keeping writing checks in the form of the overseas contingency operations appropriations bills — also known as “supplementals” — or his ability to keep enough ships sea-worthy will be “significantly impacted.”

But it is not just the stress from nearly 10 years of constant war and deployments that has the military’s equipment in an alleged declining state.

Greenert acknowledged Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee that during the post-9/11 defense spending spree, naval officials didn’t get stingy with maintenance funds.

Navy leaders pumped adequate funding into service fleet maintenance accounts, Greenert said. But what did not happen often enough was “the right maintenance at the right time.”