Pentagon warns sequester cuts will lead to ‘unready, hollow’ force

A top Pentagon official warned Congress on Wednesday that sequestration would be a “major step” to creating “an unready, hollow” military force, as lawmakers and the Obama administration spar over a plan to avert the looming automatic spending cuts.

Testifying at a long-awaited House Armed Services Committee hearing on sequestration cuts, Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter began laying out some of the impacts of the $55 billion cut facing the Pentagon in 2013 if the sequestration cuts are not reversed.

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Carter said the across-the-board cuts would require the Pentagon to “substantially modify and scale back the new defense strategy,” which was crafted last year as the Defense Department prepared for $487 billion in budget reductions already scheduled for the next decade.

Carter and acting Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Jeffrey Zients told the committee Wednesday that sequestration would be devastating and should never go into effect, bluntly telling Congress to fix the cuts before they hit on Jan. 2, 2013.

Republicans have been critical of the Obama administration, accusing them of not preparing for the impending cuts, part of what prompted Wednesday’s hearing. 

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said in his opening statement that failing to plan for sequestration would “make a terrible situation worse.”

Zients pushed back, however, chiding Republicans in Congress for not proposing realistic solutions to find alternate deficit reduction.

“The root cause of the problem here is the Republican refusal to acknowledge that the top 2 percent have to pay their fair share,” Zients said, repeating a common Democratic argument for higher taxes on the wealthy to pay for defense and other programs.

But Republicans challenged President Obama to share his own plan to actually avert sequestration.

“I want to commend you on your broken record of partisanship with respect to your fiction of the fact that this administration has a budget or a plan,” said Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio).

In a committee that prides itself on its bipartisanship, there were numerous testy exchanges between Republicans and Zients, with the two sides often speaking over each other. 

During one exchange between Turner and Zients, ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) angrily interrupted Turner and accused him of badgering the witness.

The hearing was reflective of the deep divide between Democrats and Republicans over how to solve sequestration — even if all sides agree that it would be devastating for the cuts to actually go into effect.

Democrats have said that tax increases must be part of a deficit-reduction deal to avert sequestration, something Republicans have refused to accept, while Republicans say that Democrats must put mandatory spending on the table.

No matter what happens, Zients said that the Obama administration “would be ready,” for the cuts when Jan. 2 arrives.

OMB on Tuesday issued guidance to federal agencies that it would begin consulting with them about implementing the sequester and announced that military personnel account would be exempted from the cuts.

Zients said Wednesday that defense accounts would see an approximate 10 percent across-the-board cut under sequestration, while non-defense discretionary spending would see an 8 percent reduction.

Carter said that sequestration would introduce “senseless chaos” into the management of defense programs. He said it would result in less training for military units, including some later-deploying units to Afghanistan.

In the 2013 budget, Carter said sequestration would lead to the Pentagon buying four fewer F-35 fighters, one fewer P-8 aircraft, 12 fewer Stryker vehicles and 300 fewer Army medium and heavy tactical vehicles.

It could also lead to a partial hiring freeze or unpaid furloughs for the DOD civilian workforce, he said.

Zients also laid out some of the cuts that could occur on the non-defense discretionary side, under the 8 percent reduction, including 16,000 teachers. Seven hundred thousand women and children would lose nutrition assistance and 100,000 children would be cut from Head Start, in addition, he said.

—This story was first published at 10:33 a.m. and has been updated.