U.S. military capabilities declined during the Obama administration and deep defense spending cuts are increasing the risk that American forces will lose a future war, the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Congress on Tuesday.
Navy shipbuilding and weapons buys have been cut sharply and modernization delayed, a key Army weapons system has been canceled, and Air Force combat forces are unprepared for a major conflict, the four military chiefs testified to a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh said even if the current budget request is approved, the Air Force will need eight to 10 years to restore "full-spectrum readiness" for its air and space forces.
"The problem we have is if we don't invest in readiness today, we risk losing the fight today," Welsh said. "If we don't invest in readiness and capability for the future, we risk losing the fight 10 to 20 years from now."
The military and service leaders warned that the combination of growing threats—from such states as Russia and North Korea and from terrorist groups—along with years of budget cuts under the Obama administration have increased the dangers to U.S. national security.
The current strategic requirement for military forces to be able to fight one war while holding off a second adversary and defending the homeland is no longer certain, they said.
The hearing was called to examine President Obama’s fiscal 2016 defense budget request of $612 billion—$561 billion for basic defense spending and $51 billion for overseas operations.
Lawmakers at the hearing questioned the chiefs on why the presidential defense budget request is $38 billion over a legal limit set by the 2011 Budget Control Act. The process set in motion by the act, known as sequestration, imposed across-the-board defense spending cuts amounting to some $600 billion beginning in 2013 and increasing next year.
Both Congress and the White House have complained about the impact of the automatic defense cuts on the military. But so far neither branch has taken steps to formally rescind its mandated reductions.
The chiefs and their civilian counterparts at the hearing said that sequestration is producing "devastating" shortfalls for the military.
Adm. Michelle Howard, the vice chief of naval operations who sat in for an absent CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert, said that past spending cuts have made the need to fully fund the current request an urgent priority.
"Strategic deterrence remains our number one priority, so we would focus on that, but then the impact on the rest of the conventional force, our ships and submarines, would be tremendous," she said of a failure to fully fund the current budget request.
"You’re talking about the impact on readiness, our ability to train people and our ability to forward deploy and be where we need to be—all of that would shrink. Our ability to respond to the nation's needs would be greatly diminished. It would be devastating," Howard said.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno said his service canceled a new infantry fighting vehicle that was needed to modernize forces. The current budget request also is delaying the "reset" of equipment and forces worn out by deployments in conflicts, he said.
"I would say for the Army, actually, we don’t even get reset for five more years," Odierno said, adding it will take until 2020 for reset "as we're still trying to move to the future" with new weapons.
The four-star Army general also said "unpreparedness, inability to react to the unknown, contingencies and stress on the force would be increased significantly" if the current budget is not fully funded.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford said due to the wide spread of Marines around the world, "currently, even at the president's budget, we're not making the kind of changes that facilitate and optimize distributed operations in a manner that I think is necessary for the current fight, as well as the future fight."
"Fundamentally, we really are building capabilities that are more applicable to yesterday than tomorrow right now as a result of the budgetary constraints," Dunford said.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R., Texas), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, quoted Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey as saying the president’s current budget request "was the lower ragged edge of what it takes to defend the country."
Rep. Martha McSally, (R-Ariz.), a former A-10 pilot in Iraq, said that she is opposing the Air Force’s decision to cancel the A-10 jet in its current budget. She said the plane is needed for close-air support.
"I’ve flown an A-10 in combat. Only an A-10 can save lives," McSally said.
The Air Force would need an additional $520 million in the current budget to keep the aircraft, and $4.2 billion over the next five years.
Welsh, the Air Force chief, said he that disagreed with McSally that only the A-10 can conduct close-air support missions. Instead, F-16s and F-15 will be used until newer F-35s are deployed, he said.
Much of the hearing testimony was presented by service secretaries, who as political appointees appeared less strident in explaining the impact of budget cuts. The military chiefs have no direct operational command of forces and are primarily involved in maintaining readiness, setting policies, and planning and ensuring training of forces.
In a joint prepared statement, Odierno and Army Secretary John M. McHugh said that the Army can still conduct its primary missions but "our ability to do so has become tenuous."
The cuts have increased the risk to Army forces and the nation, they said.
"The velocity of instability continues to increase worldwide, whether of ISIL and terrorism in Iraq, Syria and Yemen; anarchy and extremism in North Africa; Russian belligerence; provocation by North Korea; or complex humanitarian assistance requirements and the unpredictable nature of disaster relief missions," Odierno and McHugh said. "But despite all of this, we continue to reduce our military capabilities, degrade readiness and erode trust with the specter of sequestration."
Welsh and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James also warned about the risks to U.S. national security from funding cuts.
"Today’s Air Force is the smallest and oldest it has ever been, and a high operational tempo, paired with a constrained and uncertain budget environment, only accelerates this trend," they said.
"The nation must invest in new technologies, in training, infrastructure, and personnel, if it intends to continue operating as a global superpower," they said, adding that the current budget is a "minimum requirement to meet current strategy."
Even with current funding, "the Air Force remains stressed and shortfalls exist," Welsh and James said. "Reversion to sequestration-level funding will carry great risk for American airmen, and for America itself."
Greenert, who was absent as a result of a death in his family, said in a prepared statement for the hearing that years of budget cuts have "forced the Navy to accept significant risk in key mission areas, notably if the military is confronted with a technologically advanced adversary or forced to deny the objective of an opportunistic aggressor in a second region while engaged in a major contingency."
Navy weapons will arrive late to battle zones and will wage war with less capable weapons and limited munitions supplies, the statement claimed.
"In real terms, this means longer timelines to achieve victory, more military and civilian lives lost, and potentially less credibility to deter adversaries and assure allies in the future," Greenert said.