U.S. Army leaders on Wednesday painted a bleak picture of what will happen to the force if lawmakers do not find a way to reverse sequestration cuts.
The looming budget cuts are the “enemy at home” and could lead to a “dark and dangerous future” for the service by fiscal year 2019, Army Secretary John McHugh told the Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee.
He predicted the Army would have to cut end strength, the number of troops, to “unconscionable” levels.
The Army plans to cut the active-duty force to 490,000 by the end of this fiscal year, and shrinking defense budgets will force more reductions to around 450,000 by 2017.
If sequestration returns in fiscal 2016, the Army could be brought down to 420,000 active-duty soldiers, with tens of thousands of cuts slated for the Army National Guard and Army Reserve as well, according to McHugh.
He implored lawmakers to pass President Obama’s proposed $126.5 billion budget for the branch, which is roughly $6 billion over sequester levels.
“We need the president’s budget,” he said.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno noted that only 33 percent of the service’s brigades meet readiness requirements, when it should be around 70 percent.
He said additional troop level cuts could have a significant impact on the Army’s ability to conduct combat operations, especially if the conflict lasts longer than six to twelve months.
“Frankly, if we get into a conflict, they last longer than that,” Odierno told the panel.
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said many lawmakers are “actively pursuing a legislative fix” to sequester.
McHugh suggested one place to find savings would be to enact another round of base closures, a suggestion Congress has rejected in recent years. He said the Army has 20 percent excess capacity.
McHugh, a former member of Congress, had a base in his district closed when he served on the House Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) seemed open to the idea that a solution to sequester might mean that “every base that is open today is not going to survive.”
McHugh acknowledged the challenge for Congress, saying that if sequestration was easy to fix, lawmakers would have done so already. But he urged them to get over that “high mountain” and find a replacement to the spending caps.