Hagel warns of ‘severely damaging’ sequester cuts to Pentagon in 2014

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel issued a dire warning to Congress on Wednesday over the damage that a looming $52 billion cut in 2014 under sequestration would have on the military.

Hagel sent an eight-page letter to the heads of the Senate Armed Services Committee that was particularly blunt about the impact to training and readiness if further sequestration cuts are not avoided.

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“In the event of a major military contingency, they might leave the country without the ready forces needed to fight effectively,” Hagel warned.

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute who consults with several defense firms, said Hagel’s letter was the first time the Defense secretary had stated specifically that troops’ lives were at risk.

“What Hagel’s letter really means is that soldiers and sailors are going to die unnecessarily because of sequestration,” Thompson said. “The bottom line is that without modern weapons, U.S. warfighters are going to die.”

But the Pentagon letter lacked detail on where the cuts would hit beyond general warnings of job losses, unfit soldiers and grounded planes and ships.

As a result, defense analysts said, Hagel’s report is unlikely to spark any movement in the stalled sequester debate on Capitol Hill — something defense hawks said they hope the letter will do.

“The letter is really more just posturing than planning,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “All this letter does basically is outline at a high-level how bad sequestration would be. It doesn’t show what the department is actually planning for how to make these cuts, and it doesn’t show specific credible impacts.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) requested a detailed plan from the Pentagon to explain what would be cut under sequestration.

The senators told the Pentagon they wanted the plan, which was supposed to be delivered by July 1, in order to make the arguments to their colleagues and the public that the cuts are simply unacceptable and must be averted.

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued similar warnings in 2011 and 2012 about the cuts, as he repeatedly and colorfully stated how devastating they would be to the military.

While most Democrats and Republicans agreed the cuts were bad for the military, there was no agreement on how to replace them, and they went into effect in March. The Pentagon is cutting $37 billion from its 2013 budget as a result, with reductions in training and furloughs for civilian workers.

A spokesman for House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said Hagel’s letter once again highlights the irrevocable damage sequestration is doing, and will continue to do, to our military.”

“The Chairman agrees with Secretary Hagel that the need to resolve this crisis could not be more urgent,” McKeon spokesman Claude Chafin said. “What is missing from [the] secretary's letter is an acknowledgment that the solution to the current budgetary impasse will require the commander-in-chief to become a full partner in ending-politics-as-usual practices."

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the committee, said Hagel’s letter showed the need for Congress to act.

“Congress must end sequestration and pass a reasonable approach to reducing federal deficits,” Smith said in a statement.

Levin’s office released Hagel’s letter on Wednesday without a comment from the chairman.

The 2014 defense budget could be cut $52 billion under sequestration because that’s how much the $526.6 billion base budget is above the sequester spending caps.

In his letter, Hagel also warned that the sequestration cuts would lead to troops leaving the military, laid off civilian workers and major job losses in the defense industry as weapons programs are cut.

“We would be forced to buy fewer ships, planes, ground vehicles, satellites, and other weapons,” Hagel wrote.

If the cuts were applied proportionally to personnel accounts, Hagel warned, all promotions and bonuses might be stopped.

Hagel said that the Pentagon would still protect most or all funding for the Pentagon’s highest-priority weapons programs. He did not list any weapons programs that would be terminated.

“Defense industry jobs would be lost and, as prime contractors pull back work to protect their internal work forces, small businesses may experience disproportionately large job losses,” Hagel wrote.

The Pentagon’s plan was crafted under the assumption that the department had full flexibility to implement the cuts — which would require a change in the sequester law.

In reality, the cuts under sequester could be greater; Hagel wrote that “would mean that Congress approves program cuts denied in the past.”

The letter is full of pleas that Congress agree to the Pentagon’s cost-cutting measures, which lawmakers have rejected for two years. Those include healthcare fee increases, the retirement of ships and planes and new rounds of base closures.

Harrison said that while the effects that Hagel laid out sound devastating, Panetta had made the same arguments in 2012 that failed to convince lawmakers to avert the cuts.

“This is a similar strategy that the prior Secretary Panetta used in trying to pressure congress to avoid sequestration — and that didn’t work,” Harrison said. “I don’t know how they expect this to be effective now if it wasn’t effective last year.”

—This story was updated at 5:45 p.m.