Military brass warn personnel, weapons at risk of being gutted

Pentagon brass pleaded for action from the supercommittee on Wednesday, warning the military’s personnel and platforms would be gutted if lawmakers fail to strike a deal. 

As annual Pentagon budgets decreased in recent years, the military services often had to choose between funding wartime troop levels or weapons programs. 

But if the congressional supercommittee can’t reach an agreement on $1.2 trillion in federal cuts, officials say, the military will have no choice but to make deep cuts to both.

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“We’re talking hundreds of aircraft and thousands of people” that would be cut from the Air Force’s fleet and ranks if the debt panel fails to strike a deal, Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

Gen. James Amos, Marine Corps commandant, said additional Pentagon funding cuts would force what Marine Corps leaders call the nation’s quick-response force to dip below 186,000 troops.

That means a smaller Marine force that will be able to do less around the globe, Amos said, stressing U.S. military presence helps maintain global economic stability. 

If deep cuts leave the U.S. military forced to scale down the number of places it can operate, Amos said, "someone" will fill the void — an apparent reference to China. The Asian giant is in the midst of a massive military build-up.

Army brass echoed those warnings. Ground service Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno said cuts beyond those already in motion would “almost eliminate” the Army’s slate of weapons programs that soldiers would use for decades to come.

The dire warnings from the service chiefs left some lawmakers wanting more specifics on what a debt-panel failure would mean.

Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), sounding frustrated, asked the chiefs: “What exactly can be cut?”

When Schwartz offered only the vague answer that further cuts would cost the air service “hundreds of aircraft and thousands of people,” Garamendi’s frustration intensified.

“What does that mean?” he asked. “We don’t have much information besides 'Bad things will happen.' "

At a separate breakfast event Wednesday, Army Secretary John McHugh said military weapons programs would be hit hard if the supercommittee deadlocks.

A failure by the deficit panel would trigger $600 billion in security cuts over the next decade. McHugh said hardware accounts would have to be raided to find half those reductions. 

Supercommittee members have until Nov. 23 to reach a deal, which would then need to be approved by Congress to avoid the triggers.

The automatic cuts that would be set off by a supercommittee failure would be in addition to $350 billion in cuts over the same span already being implemented under the August debt deal.

Defense Department officials say they can manage the $350 billion in cuts, but used words like “catastrophic” and “doomsday” when describing the impact of what would be a nearly $1 trillion funding hit.

Leaders of the Army — and the other military services — say they will have to shrink their ranks to cut costs.

But the Army secretary told reporters his service can only cut so many soldiers because “you can’t have an Army without people,” said McHugh, a former GOP congressman from New York.

At the hearing, Schwartz ticked off a list of the Air Force’s big-ticket hardware programs that could be threatened if more Pentagon funding cuts are ordered. On the list were three of its highest priorities: a new bomber fleet; its version of the F-35 fighter; and a new tanker fleet.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor on the F-35 program, and Boeing is building the new aerial tanker planes. Those companies, and others, like Northrop Grumman, are expected to seriously consider making a run at what would be a multibillion-dollar bomber contract.

Defense trade organizations like the Aerospace Industries Association and hawkish lawmakers say that scenario would lead to up to 1 million terminated jobs across the nation at a time of high unemployment.

McHugh urged the supercommittee members to consider the economic effects of deeper Pentagon cuts.

Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, said the losses resulting from further cuts due to a debt-panel failure would be “irrecoverable.” 

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House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said technology development work on military platforms often translates into commercial items, meaning additional defense cuts would have a big impact on the broader American economy. Boeing and other defense-sector firms have facilities in Washington state.

For the Navy, Greenert said, defense firms laying off skilled engineers and workers would be a big setback at a time when his service is beginning an effort to design and build a new fleet of complex nuclear submarines.

Greenert offered a pithy assessment of the options the military would have if the debt panel fails and it must cut $600 billion more: “It’s not a very good set of choices.”

—Updated at 3:03 p.m.