Lawmakers, contractors, Defense Department employees, and military experts warned on Tuesday morning that another $52 billion in defense cuts later this year will completely devastate the U.S. military.
Deep budgetary cuts known as sequestration have already slashed billions from the defense budget.
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However, another round of cuts set in place for October will further demoralize and destroy a military still reeling from two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to those who testified before the Senate Budget Committee.
"Sequestration was set up to be so stupid that no group of rational people would ever let it happen. Yet it’s happening," said Sen. Mark Warner (D., Va.), one of several lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who decried the sequestration.
Warner described the cuts as "stupidity on steroids" and said that over the next decade, these cuts will "actually [cost] the taxpayer more dollars" as a result of the damage they will do to the military’s readiness and the overall U.S. economy.
Sequestration, which was enacted last year after Congress failed to agree on a budget compromise, will cut some $1 trillion from the defense budget over the next decade.
It has already led the military to ground warplanes, cut training, reduce operations, furlough employees, and severely reduce troop levels.
Additional cuts will not just prevent the military from responding to multiple global threats. They could create an economic catastrophe at home, military experts and Pentagon employees warned.
Jennifer-Cari Green, a 26-year-old single mother and medical worker at the Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington, told lawmakers how forced furloughs have pushed her into poverty.
"My salary has been subject to the three year federal pay freeze," Green told lawmakers. "Because of the hiring freeze at DOD, I have been expected to do the work of two positions for over a year."
Forced to take an 11-day furlough, Green has lost about 32 percent of her take-home pay. She said the Pentagon had claimed that furloughed employees would only lose 20 percent of their take-home pay. Because of this, she cannot afford basic amenities for her child or even pay rent.
"This furlough will likely cause me to slip below the line into poverty," she said. "It feels punitive and I worry that it will make a ‘beggar’ out of me. I am afraid that I will be forced to seek handouts, government assistance, food bank donations, etc."
The furloughs have also impacted employee morale, Green said.
"It is extremely difficult to come to work and do justice to this job, to care for our patients with the level of compassion, patience, concern, and courtesy they deserve when you know you don’t even have enough money to buy the bare necessities as a working adult," Green said.
"I am just one example of hundreds of thousands of federal employees whose lives are being so drastically damaged by these policies," she said.
While the sequestration is squeezing Americans domestically, it is also gutting U.S. military assets abroad, experts said.
The United States is almost at the point where it cannot respond to multiple conflicts in different regions, according to military expert Tom Donnelly, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).
"The president’s defense guidance did represent the crossing of a Rubicon for this country," Donnelly said. "To be a global power, to play the role the U.S. has played, requires us to be able to do two things at once, to fight two major campaigns at once."
However, "we have crossed that threshold … and we see the consequences not only of the strategic changing of course that’s been made, but by the steady erosion in the ability of the U.S. Army to execute the strategy that’s long been accepted by presidents of both parties"
From the Middle East to the Pacific, the United States is sending a message to its allies and enemies alike that it is pulling back.
"There’s no way the world is going to stay the same if the U.S. plays a lesser role in the world," Donnelly said. It will be "less secure, less prosperous, and less free."
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned earlier this month that, among other things, the additional $52 billion cut will cause more furloughs, lead to a freeze on all military promotions, and cause the Air Force to ground one-third of its squadrons.
Private defense contractors have also suffered under the sequester.
Mark Klett, president and CEO of Klett Consulting Group, Inc., said budgetary uncertainty has forced him to sideline his employees, 60 percent of who are veterans.
"The result for the small businesses out there is it’s stop and go," Klett said. "It’s herky jerky."
Around 30 percent of Klett’s "critical personnel" have been placed on the "sidelines," meaning that Klett must pay them to not work on various government contracts and other military projects.
While the Pentagon has taken the brunt of Congress’s budget cuts, Democrats continue to argue that they will not repeal the sequester until Republicans sign off on tax increases.
"If we can’t even look at those [tax increases on the rich] then, yeah, the sequester is going to continue," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.) said during the hearing.
"Lower taxes for billionaires" and corporations that "cheat on taxes" are more pressing than the defense budget, Whitehouse said. "We’ve got to be willing to look at that if we take this issue seriously."