The automatic across-the-board cuts in federal spending scheduled to begin Friday have become the subject of a heated political fight in Washington, where the White House and Republicans have traded blame as the Pentagon warns that the fiscal uncertainty is threatening the world’s largest military.
The extent to which such warnings from defense leaders are exaggerated remains in dispute. But there is no doubt that the budget crunch represents a sea change for an Army that swelled quickly and became used to being generously bankrolled after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Look no further than the 82nd Airborne Division, the Army’s first line of defense for any new major conflict. Like their peers across the country, the division’s commanders have had to make difficult choices in recent weeks, sharply curtailing training and forgoing repairs for some equipment. Commanders say that if the shortfalls persist for months, they worry about how deftly soldiers would perform if the Army were called on to secure Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons or defend Americans if another diplomatic post was attacked.
“There will be a higher level of risk and much greater potential for casualties,” said Maj. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the division’s commander. “We’d be faced with new conditions we haven’t encountered before: tanks, artillery, chemical weapons. These are conditions we would normally train for intensively.”
As brigades geared up for deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, most participated in costly, comprehensive training exercises that taught them how the military’s vast array of aircraft, vehicles, communication equipment and weapons work in tandem in combat. In a hurry to save money, the Army sharply pared down the training modules it devised for the post-war era. For Nicholson, that means many of his soldiers will get to hone their skills only in small units here at Fort Bragg.
Col. Michael Fenzel, the commander of the division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, said that training mainly at the squad level “represents incredible concern” as he weighs potential new missions, such as responding to an unforeseen crisis in Afghanistan.
“The offense is going to be practicing without the linebackers and the offensive backs,” said Fenzel, who has had to trim about 35 percent from his budget. “Having that degradation knowing that the world is becoming more unstable is unsettling.”
To makes ends meet, Fenzel said, he has cut back on buying medical supplies, keeping only the essential stock, and put off nonessential vehicle repairs.
The 82nd’s Combat Aviation Brigade has been struck particularly hard. After completing an Afghan deployment in the fall, the unit’s aircraft were shipped to bases nationwide for refurbishment. Money to send helicopters back to Fort Bragg was axed, forcing Col. Michael Musiol, the brigade commander, to dip into his unit’s budget to return them.