Hagel: Budget cuts could harm US defense

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Associated Press

Posted on July 31, 2013 at 5:36 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Wednesday that the Pentagon may have to mothball up to three Navy aircraft carriers and order additional sharp reductions in the size of the Army and Marine Corps if Congress doesn't act to avoid massive budget cuts beginning in 2014.

Speaking to reporters, and indirectly to Congress, Hagel said that the full result of the sweeping budget cuts over the next 10 years could leave the nation with an ill-prepared, under-equipped military doomed to face more technologically advanced enemies.

In his starkest terms to date, 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 $500 billion over the next 10 years as a result of Congressionally-mandated automatic spending cuts.

The Pentagon has been ratcheting up a persistent drumbeat about the dire effects of the budget cuts on national defense, and as Congress continues to wrangle over spending bills in Congress.

But Hagel insisted that the department is not exaggerating the impact.

"I know there's politics in all this," Hagel said. "But what we're trying to project here is not crying wolf or not trying to overstate or overhype."

Sitting alongside Hagel, Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said a major frustration is that the Pentagon doesn't know what budget totals Congress will eventually decide on, or when lawmakers will make a decision.

"What we were doing here is teeing up choices. We haven't made those choices yet," said Winnefeld. "When we finally get an answer on what the financial outlook is going to look like, we will then begin to make those choices."

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, would likely result in the U.S. military using older, less effective equipment against more technologically advanced adversaries. And it would have a greater impact on private defense companies around the country.

The U.S., said Hagel, 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 would still "fall well short" of meeting the reductions required by the automatic budget cuts, particularly during the first five years.

The details Hagel described Wednesday are the result of a lengthy 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 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.

Some lawmakers and staff aides say the new, deeper Pentagon reductions could be the jolt that prompts lawmakers to step back from the automatic cuts.

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