The U.S. military's goal of being able to fight two wars at the same time is in jeopardy due to the continued specter of sequestration, top commanders from all four Defense Department branches said Thursday.
"If we continue to go down [in strength] too fast, we will not be able to respond accordingly to different nations in the world," Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John Campbell said.
The second-in-command from each branch of the military testified before the House Armed Services subcommittee on Readiness, to discuss the military's long-term strategic readiness.
All four branches are making cuts to their overall strength in the 2015 budget, and the commanders warned the possible return of the sequester in 2016 could force cuts that would create a critical shortfall in preparedness.
In the past, the military's stated goal was to be able to fight and win two separate major wars at the same time. In 2012, this goal was rolled back to being able to win one major war while fighting a holding action in another until additional forces were available to achieve victory. If the sequester returns in the 2016 budget, however, the commanders warned even that goal could be unachievable.
"In Iraq and Afghanistan, we never came out of one to go fight another one," Campbell told The Hill after the hearing. "I think the pressure that would build if something is going on, would be to move people very quickly, and that's a capability we won't have going forward."
Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mark Ferguson said the sequester's return would endanger the Navy's ability to meet a second threat while already engaged with a major enemy. Vice Chief of Staff for the Air Force Gen. Larry Spencer warned it would create an unacceptable level of risk for the country.
"We don't get a Super Bowl [where we] get to lose and come back. We have to win," Spencer said. "[Under the sequester], we won't have the capacity to respond to what we say we can respond to today."
The generals testified that, even the single year of sequester in 2013 had resulted in a severe deterioration of readiness within the armed forces that the Defense Department is still scrambling to undo.
"We're mortgaging the future. We're really pushing hard for additional money to try to bring up short-term readiness, but then in 2016, if we go to sequestration, we all just fall off the map again," Campbell said.
Campbell said even the threat of sequestration was forcing the Army to downsize more than it would otherwise, so the Army will not be caught flat-footed with a force too large to fund should reduced funding levels return.
"We have to plan worst-case," he said.
Commanders also expressed general concern that the United States was, for the first time, cutting its military capabilities even as security threats were increasing.
"Korean War, Vietnam, Cold War, they all had something in common. We built up, the threat goes down, we came down. We're coming down in funding, and the threat's not coming down." Gen. Spencer said. "That keeps me up at night."