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WASHINGTON: The Pentagon’s civilian and military leaders warned in dire terms yesterday that $46bn in budget cuts due to go into effect in two weeks would erode the nation’s ability to go to war and appealed to Congress to delay the reductions.
The automatic, across-the-board cuts will force the Pentagon to put most of its 800,000 civilian employees on unpaid leave for 22 days, slash ship and aircraft maintenance and curtail training, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“These devastating events are no longer distant problems. The wolf is at the door,” Carter said as he and the military chiefs appealed for Congress to take action to delay the cuts known as sequestration from taking effect beginning March 1.
For months, Pentagon officials have been painting a doomsday scenario if Congress does not come up with a replacement for the sequester. The cuts are already law, but when Congress enacted them in August 2011, lawmakers never intended for them to happen. The thinking was that they would be so abhorrent that Democrats and Republicans would come up with an alternative budget-cutting plan.
But no plan has emerged, leading defense officials to recently ratchet up their rhetoric about the dangerous consequences of the cuts, although some skeptics doubt that the impact would be as dramatic as described.
Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on a scale from one to 10, with one being the least dangerous and 10 being the most, the budget situation “sure feels like a 10.”
Asked by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina whether he or the other military chiefs had considered resigning in protest, Dempsey said they were not trained to walk away from a crisis.
“I will tell you personally, if ever the force is so degraded and so unready and then we’re asked to use it, it would be immoral to use the force unless it’s well-trained, well-led and well-equipped,” Dempsey said.
“Are we on the path to creating that dilemma?” Graham asked.
“We are on that path,” Dempsey replied.
However, Mattea Kramer, research director for the National Priorities Project, a Massachusetts research organization that focuses on the US budget, said she did not think the cuts would be as devastating as described.
“We are not of the opinion that American security will be deeply compromised here,” Kramer said in an interview. “I do think that it’s true that sequestration is a bad instrument for going about cutting budgets and that DOD officials absolutely will be pulling out their hair.”
She also noted, “There is waste, there are obsolete programmes to be sunset, there is Cold War technology that we need not be investing in any longer.”
Underlining the risks facing the United States, the hearing took place just hours after North Korea’s third nuclear test - something Defence Secretary Leon Panetta told Pentagon employees represented a “serious threat” to America.
Tensions with Iran over its nuclear program are also simmering, and General Mark Welsh, chief of staff of the Air Force, acknowledged future cuts could make it more difficult for the US military to wage a preventive strike, if necessary.