Injecting ominous warnings about national security into policy debates has in the past snapped elected leaders into action, but there is no sign that Republicans and the White House are close to compromising on a more measured approach to reducing the deficit. Some lawmakers and analysts have dismissed the caution as posturing by a force reluctant to shrink too much in a postwar era.
In response, the military’s service chiefs are amplifying the months-long warnings of Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and others and providing what they have described as the specific and serious consequences of the across-the-board cuts.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, recently warned that the cuts may curtail training for 80 percent of ground forces, including some in the deployment pipeline, forcing him to extend the deployments of troops already in Afghanistan.
Facing a $8.6 billion shortfall, the Navy has delayed the deployment of the USS Harry Truman, leaving just one aircraft carrier instead of two in the Persian Gulf, where tensions continue with Iran. The budget crunch also will mean delays for repairs of a carrier and the construction of another.
The Air Force has warned that slashing $12.4 billion from its budget for the remainder of the fiscal year would require cutting 200,000 flying hours. That means that by May, two-thirds of the force’s pilots would “drop below acceptable level of readiness,” Air Force chief Mark Welsh told lawmakers recently.
After holding out hope for a compromise, Pentagon civilians were startled Wednesday when Panetta notified 800,000 employees that they might face a 20 percent pay cut if furloughs are implemented starting in April. Although the payroll for uniformed personnel is spared, the threat of extended deployments has confounded troops in Afghanistan.
“It’s like I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop,” said one service member there, Maj. Dustin Navarro, 31. “I’d rather have higher taxes and fewer base resources at home than have this kind of uncertainty while deployed.”
With cuts set to begin March 1, Odierno said in a speech last Friday that the Army is scrambling to find up to $24 billion in reductions for the last seven months of the fiscal year. The shortfall will affect training, he said, presenting a thankless choice between sending untrained troops to Afghanistan and keeping certain units there months beyond their exit dates. American lives are at stake, he warned.