Pentagon presents possible sequester cuts

The Pentagon on Wednesday presented detailed, stark options it is considering in light of steep cuts to the federal budget, warning, for instance, that it could be forced to decommission three Navy aircraft carriers and overhaul the military’s generous benefits package.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stopped short of endorsing new major, specific cuts. But he presented alternatives that included significant reductions to the size of the active-duty Army and Marine Corps, which the military has thus far been reluctant to put forward, and retiring aging Air Force bombers. One option contemplates a significantly smaller military that could still invest in new technology and maintain a high state of readiness.

“This strategic choice would result in a force that would be technologically dominant, but would be much smaller and able to go fewer places and do fewer things, especially if crises occurred at the same time in different regions of the world,” Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon.

Hagel’s remarks came after the Pentagon completed a no-holds-barred review of defense spending to identify viable alternatives to bring spending in line with the congressionally mandated cuts known as sequestration. Under the leadership of then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, the Pentagon did little to plan for sequestration before it kicked in on March 1, beyond railing against the prospect.

When the Obama administration submitted its budget proposal to Congress this spring, the defense portion was drafted under the assumption that an alternative to sequestration would be reached before the end of this fiscal year in the fall. Some lawmakers have expressed concern about the national security implications of the cuts, but there is little sign that Democrats and Republicans are close to reaching a compromise on a new approach to deficit reduction.

If sequestration remains in place, the Pentagon would have to trim $50 billion from its budget during 2014 and $500 billion over the next decade.

Hagel said any approach to reducing the budget would have to include slashing compensation costs, which account for roughly half of the Pentagon’s budget. Personnel costs soared during the past decade, when the military had to go to great lengths to recruit and retain service members during wartime.

“If left unchecked, pay and benefits will continue to eat into readiness and modernization,” Hagel said. “That could result in a far less capable force that is well-compensated but poorly trained and poorly equipped.”

A senior Defense official said Hagel hoped the remarks would serve as a wake-up call to lawmakers who have come to see sequestration as palatable.

“These were hard facts to the Congress to explain what their indecision does to the military,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to explain Hagel’s intent.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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