Mandatory cuts to the U.S. defense budget scheduled for the end of the year could cripple America’s armed forces by leaving them ill-equipped, understaffed, and unprepared to carry out missions in an increasingly dangerous world, former military officials and lawmakers warned Wednesday during a briefing on Capitol Hill.
Congress, in its August 2011 debt limit deal, agreed on $487 billion in defense cuts over the next decade. Failure to agree on further cuts by December will lead to another $500 billion reduction in defense spending, otherwise known as "sequestration," the effect of which would be catastrophic, according to lawmakers.
Most speakers at the briefing detailed the human toll the cuts would take on the nation’s armed forces.
Hundreds of thousands of Army, Navy, and Air Force members, for instance, would instantly receive the ax as a result of the sequester, bringing troop levels to historic lows. Those personnel who are not immediately fired will be forced to fight with aging, out-of-date equipment, experts said.
In a worst case scenario, sequestration would shrink the U.S. Army from 560,000 troops to fewer than 490,000; the Marines from 202,000 to fewer than 182,000; the Navy from 325,000 to fewer than 322,000; and the Air Force from 333,000 to fewer than 330,000, according to statistics provided by the Reserve Officers Association (ROA).
"The solution we came up with is to fire the soldiers," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, declared before an overflow crowd at an event titled, "Defending Defense."
The American Enterprise Institute, the Foreign Policy Initiative, and the Heritage Foundation cosponsored the forum.
"Fire us and keep the soldiers! This is just ass backwards," Graham said. "The solution is not destroying the military."
If Congress fails to prevent the automatic cuts by striking a compromise, nearly 2.1 million jobs could be lost—200,000 of which would affect uniformed military personnel, studies show.
"If you talk to anybody in uniform or has anything to do with defense they are so appalled at the [situation] we’ve put ourselves in," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
More than a million civilian defense workers and contractors also would face unemployment, McKeon said, basing those figures off of recent conversations he has had with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a vocal opponent of sequestration.
"If you take the Navy back to the size it was [during] World War I and the Air Force back to the size it was when it was created, and 200,000 [troops] from the military, that’s the definition of a hollow military," McKeon said, using a term describing a fighting force that appears functional on paper but cannot carry out actual missions.
Hostile foreign nations such as North Korea and Iran hope that Congress will fail to stop sequestration, so that widespread defense cuts castrate the U.S. military, several lawmakers said.
"There [would be] increased potential for conflict around the world," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support.
Looming cuts to the Navy, for example, could prevent the U.S. from deterring Iran, McKeon and others warned. It is estimated that the total number of Navy ships could shrink from 285 to 230, a number that experts described as low.
"We just take it for granted that our ships can be travelling the seas safely and carrying the economy," McKeon said, explaining that the U.S. Navy’s persistent presence in tense regions ensures critical shipping lanes remain accessible and safe.
If Iran follows through on its threats to close the Strait of Hormuz—a major shipping lane for petroleum—the Navy could struggle to respond, producing an "immediate impact on our economy" as oil prices skyrocket "overnight," McKeon said.
Iran is hardly the only threat, Ayotte said.
"We know China is investing substantially in their Navy so they can be dominant in the Asian Pacific," she said, further noting that the situation in Syria could spiral out of control at any moment.
Troop shortages and defective equipment would also prevent American forces from carrying out multiple missions at once.
"Our Marine Corps would be unable to respond to one single major contingency," Ayotte said, decrying a potential reduction of 18,000 Marines and 100,000 Army men and women. "Our capacity around the world … will be impacted."
"North Korea, Iran, the whole Middle East, China—we’ve got challenges all around the world" and will be unable to compete if further cuts take place, McKeon said.
Russia, too, would pose a greater threat.
"I can only imagine what the Russians are thinking right now as we prepare to really diminish our military strength," Ayotte said.
As a percentage of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, defense spending would decrease from 4.7 percent to 3.5 percent, lower than the 3.7 percent that Russia spends on defense, according to estimates provided by the ROA.
While the much-feared defense cuts would hinder the American military’s capabilities, it would also result in inadequate training for future soldiers.
Major General Andrew Davis, a former Marine Corps member who now heads the ROA, recalled that budget cuts during the late 1970s forced reserve troops to train without ammunition.
"Literally, we were running through the woods at Fort McLean, Virginia yelling, ‘Bang Bang!’" David told the Free Beacon. "There were no funds for training ammunition."
In another instance, common paper plates were used in lieu of land mines during training exercises, he said, painting a picture of what the future potentially holds for the U.S. armed forces.
"That training is not realistic and does not prepare you for the realities of the battle field," Davis said.
Inadequate training and Obama administration proposals to cut pay for reserve officers could lead many to opt out, Davis warned.
"The first thing that’s going to get cut is people because they’re the most expensive," he said.
Those who are not fired may quit.
"If the equipment is substandard, they’ll vote with their feet," Davis said. "They don’t have to serve."
Sen. Ayotte placed the blame on Congress for putting the armed services in such dire straits.
"When we [Congress] kick the can down the road around here and don’t take on the fundamental issues driving our debt. … It doesn’t get any better," she said. "It only gets worse—and this is where we are right now."