Hollow Force on the Horizon

Joint Chiefs Chairman warns Congress against Obama plan for solving sequester with mainly defense cuts

Gen. Martin Dempsey / AP
• February 13, 2013 7:30 pm


The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Congress on Wednesday that the military could not afford one more dollar in cuts without scaling back forces and operations.

The testimony by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman, revealed the first signs of an emerging rift between the president and his top military adviser on White House plans for disproportionate cuts in defense spending.

"The question I would ask this committee: What do you want your military to do? If you want it to be doing what it's doing today, then we can't give you another dollar," Dempsey said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on sequestration, as automatic spending cuts are called.

Dempsey’s comments were among the strongest to date by a senior military leader on the military’s position on dealing with the dramatic cuts of $660 billion in defense spending over 10 years required under the Budget Control Act and due to go into effect March 1.

Dempsey was asked during the hearing by Rep. Adam Smith (D., Wash.), if the military could absorb another $175 billion in cuts on top the $487 billion in planned reductions worked out last year.

"Clearly, budget certainty, time, and flexibility help, but there is a magnitude issue here, too," Dempsey said. "We built a strategy last year that we said we could execute and absorb $487 billion [in cuts]. I can't sit here today and guarantee you that if you take another $175 billion that that strategy remains solvent."

The administration’s plans to solve the fiscal crisis with huge defense spending cuts are coming at a time when the U.S. military is already making sharp spending cuts at the same time it is waging war and trying to rebuild forces built up in the 1980s while maintaining global deployments.

The sharp spending cuts also would severely disrupt military training, the development of new weapons, and operations near hot spots like the Persian Gulf and North Asia, Dempsey and chiefs testified.

Dempsey’s comments followed President Barack Obama’s statement in a Saturday radio address urging Congress to pass a similar measure to the one signed into law Jan. 1 that temporarily averted sequestration until March 1.

"This time, Congress should pass a similar set of balanced cuts and close more tax loopholes until they can find a way to replace the sequester with a smarter, longer-term solution," Obama said.

White House press secretary Jay Carney repeated on Monday that the compromise reached in Congress last December is the model favored by the president.

"We need to do that again," Carney said. "When the Congress did it just a few months ago, they did it in a way that was balanced. They ought to do that again."

Critics in Congress say the White House plan for so-called "balanced" cuts in the temporary legislation included $50 billion in tax revenues, along with $26 billion in defense cuts and $26 billion in domestic spending for fiscal 2013 that ends Sept. 30. Already, $12 billion has been cut to date from defense and domestic programs.

Extending the January compromise in more permanent legislation, as the White House wants, would amount to about $250 billion in defense cuts through fiscal 2021, according to a congressional analysis.

"Defense would continue to be the bill payer," said one congressional aide.

Carney and a spokesman for Dempsey could not be reached for comment on whether the chairman disagrees with the president.

Committee Chairman Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R., Calif.) said in a statement after the hearing that the testimony from Dempsey and the chiefs prompted deep concerns about future U.S. national security.

"I took some comfort in Gen. Martin Dempsey's testimony today, when he noted that our national security strategy could not survive another dollar of defense cuts," McKeon said. "It is alarming that despite the warning of his most senior military adviser, President Obama has proposed a plan that would take not one, but up to $250 billion dollars out of defense."

McKeon added: "If our national security strategy, already drastically watered down to comply with the White House's first two rounds of defense cuts, cannot survive a dollar's cut—it is frightening to consider what the president's next round of massive cuts could do to our safety and our security."

McKeon said the session was held at the "eleventh hour" during the hearing.

"This committee has undergone 16 months of exhaustive examination of the pending damage from sequestration, and now it appears that this self-inflicted wound is poised to cripple our military forces in just a few days," McKeon said, quoting a letter from the service chiefs Jan. 14 that stated "We are on the brink of creating a hollow force."

"We are on the verge on a readiness crisis due to an unprecedented convergence of factors," Dempsey said in his opening statement.

"We are facing the prolonged specter of sequestration, while under a continuing resolution, while we are just beginning to absorb $487 billion worth of cuts from 2011 and while we're still fighting and resourcing a war," he said. "That’s unprecedented."

Additionally, the cuts are coming at a time when the international security environment is "more dangerous and more uncertain," Dempsey said.

"In this context, sequestration will upend our defense strategy, it will put the nation at greater risk of coercion and it will require us to break commitment to our men and women in uniform and their families, to our defense industrial base and to our partners and allies," Dempsey said.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said sharp defense cuts would undermine forces and "that starts to reduce our capabilities and abilities to respond."

"I began my career in a hollow Army," Odierno said. "I am determined not to end my career in a hollow Army. We cannot allow careless budget cuts to bring us there again."