Pentagon officials insist they are not crying wolf when they say proposed budget cuts could severely harm the military.
In a detailed and stark warning, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said about $500 billion in automatic budget cuts scheduled to take effect over the next decade could leave the nation with an ill-prepared, underequipped military doomed to face more technologically advanced enemies.
If Congress doesn't act to avoid the cuts, he said, the Pentagon may be forced to mothball up to three Navy aircraft carriers and order additional sharp reductions in the size of the Army and Marine Corps — shortfalls the military hasn't seen since World War II.
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"I know there's politics in all this," Hagel said Wednesday. "But what we're trying to project here is not crying wolf or not trying to overstate or overhype."
Speaking to Pentagon reporters, and indirectly to Congress, Hagel laid out a worst-case scenario for the U.S. military if the Pentagon is forced to slash more than $50 billion from the 2014 budget and half a trillion over 10 years as a result of congressionally mandated cuts.
His remarks were the latest in a persistent Pentagon drumbeat about the dire effects of the budget cuts on national defense as Congress continues to wrangle over spending bills on Capitol Hill.
Facing lawmakers on Thursday, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, said the cuts will happen faster than the military can handle them.
"All we can do is grab money wherever we can from modernization and readiness accounts," Winnefeld told the House Armed Services Committee.
Going from 11 to eight or nine carrier strike groups would bring the Navy to its lowest number since World War II. And the troop cuts could shear the Army back to levels not seen since 1940, eroding the military's ability to keep forces deployed and combat-ready overseas.
Detailing options, Hagel said America may have to choose between having a highly capable but significantly smaller military and having a larger force while reducing special operations forces, limiting research, and cutting or curtailing plans to upgrade weapons systems.
That second option, he said, likely would result in the U.S. military using older, less effective equipment against more technologically advanced adversaries. And it would have a greater impact on the nation's private defense companies.
Hagel said the U.S. risks fielding a military force that in the next few years would be unprepared due to a lack of training, maintenance and upgraded equipment.
And even if the Pentagon chooses the most dramatic cuts, Hagel said it still would "fall well short" of meeting the reductions required by the automatic budget cuts, particularly during the first five years.
While noting that no final decisions have been made, Hagel laid out a few specific ideas under consideration.
He said that to achieve the savings by shrinking the force, the Pentagon might have to cut more than 100,000 additional soldiers from the Army, which is already planning to go from a wartime high of about 570,000 to 490,000 soldiers by 2017. The current plan to reduce the size of the Marine Corps to 182,000 from a high of about 205,000 could also be changed, cutting it to as few as 150,000 Marines.
He added that the Air Force could lose as many as five combat air squadrons as well as a number of other bomber and cargo aircraft.
"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 said.
Another option, he said, would be to make fewer cuts in the size of the force, and instead cancel or curtail many modernization programs.
In addition he said that the Pentagon was taking a close look at cuts to health care benefits, military housing allowances, cost-of-living adjustments and civilian pay raises.
Hagel repeated his plans — announced two weeks ago — to cut top Pentagon and military staff and spending by 20 percent. The savings, which will apply to his office, that of the Joint Chiefs chairman and the Pentagon headquarters offices of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, could total between $1.5 billion and $2 billion over the next five years and will target personnel, including civilians and contractors.
The details Hagel described Wednesday were the result of a review by top Pentagon and military leaders that looked at the impact of budget cuts on the department and developed a series of options to deal with them.
The cuts stem from a law enacted two years ago that ordered the government to come up with $1.2 trillion in savings over a decade. The law included the threat of annual automatic cuts as a way of forcing lawmakers to reach a deficit-reduction deal, but they have been unable to do so.
As a result, come January, the Pentagon faces a cut of $54 billion from current spending, according to calculations by Capitol Hill budget aides. The base budget must be trimmed to $498 billion, with cuts of about 4 percent, hitting already reduced spending on defense, nuclear weapons and military construction.
Congress has shown little inclination to undo the so-called sequester cuts, though talks between the White House and a handful of Senate Republicans have intensified in recent weeks.
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