WASHINGTON — The four-star officers responsible for training and equipping the U.S. military delivered a stark warning to Congress on Thursday, telling lawmakers that a looming budget crisis heightens the risk of sending unprepared troops into combat and increasing the number of American casualties in a conflict with a well-equipped enemy.
Gen. Mark Milley, the Army chief of staff, evoked examples from wars past to warn members of the Senate Armed Services Committee of the dangers of not giving American fighting forces all they need to win quickly and decisively.
"Wars are often thought to be short when they begin. They're not," Milley said. "They're often thought to cost less than they end up costing. And they end up taking complicated turns that you never know. It's a dangerous thing."
Milley and the other service chiefs pleaded with lawmakers to find common ground and avoid the return of strict, across-the-board spending limits known in Washington-speak as sequestration. An agreement last year involving Republicans and Democrats provided temporary relief from sequestration, but the limits return in the 2018 budget year and would force defense budgets to levels far lower than the Pentagon says are prudent. If the budget caps are breached, automatic reductions would be triggered.
All the service chiefs agreed they would not have the resources to defend the country if sequestration kicks in. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a defense hawk, asked the chiefs whether the lives of U.S. troops would be put at risk if sequestration goes into effect. "Yes, sir," they all responded.
The hearing highlighted how little progress Congress has made in resolving their bitter differences over federal spending. Milley repeated, nearly verbatim, an admonition he voiced in March about the difficulties the Army faces in a large-scale conflict against a nation state because the training and equipment for these types of operations has atrophied over the past 15 years. The Army is ready to fight the Islamic State and other extremist groups, Milley said, but a war against a "near peer," such as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, would pose greater challenges.
Milley estimated the ground service needs four years to get its brigade combat teams up to roughly three-quarters of what he called "full spectrum" readiness. If automatic cuts are imposed, however, the Army would lose between 60,000 to 100,000 soldiers, he said.
"Sequestration will take the rug out from underneath us," Milley said.
Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, said the Navy faces a "triple whammy" that stems from tighter budgets, increased operational demands and persistent uncertainty about future money. Richardson described a problem that affects all the military branches: The length and regularity of deployments wear down warfighting gear more quickly, which increases the repair workload and siphons money from other areas, such as modernization and training, to pay the bills.
The Senate is gridlocked over a $575 billion defense spending bill for the budget year that begins Oct. 1. Republicans and Democrats are bickering over money for domestic programs, including efforts to combat the Zika virus. Negotiations continue between the House and Senate for a separate bill that sets defense policy and approves annual military spending levels. That legislation cannot actually allot the money the military services need to operate.
For months, Republicans have hammered the White House and the Pentagon for failing to halt a decline in the military's ability to respond to global threats that they say have worsened on President Barack Obama's watch. The House has voted to boost the defense budget in 2017 by shifting $18 billion in emergency wartime spending to replace aging gear with new ships, jet fighters, helicopters and more. To make up for the shortfall in the wartime account, Obama's successor would submit a supplemental budget to Congress early next year.
But Defense Secretary Ash Carter has criticized the House plan as a "road to nowhere" that actually degrades combat readiness by retaining troops and buying equipment that can't be sustained without the certainty of future increases, effectively creating a hollowed out force.
The Budget Control Act of 2011 set limits on how much could be spent on defense through 2021. Between 2011 and 2014, the Pentagon's budget fell by more than $100 billion. Sequestration was triggered in 2013, forcing reductions that led to widespread concern the military services would be unprepared to fight the nation's wars. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 provided temporary relief from the cuts.