Service chiefs: Defense spending caps will undercut troop morale
WASHINGTON — Military chiefs of staff warned the Senate on Wednesday that coming caps on defense spending will break faith with troops and hollow out the nation’s all-volunteer force.
The heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps said servicemembers, equipment and facilities are stretched too thin and budget caps set to begin this fall could create a frustrated, poorly-trained-and-equipped force like that of the post-Vietnam War era.
The testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee comes days before the White House releases its federal budget proposal and Congress launches into a debate over whether to lift defense spending limits aimed at reducing the U.S. debt.
“None of us want to return to those days of the 1970s when we had a hollow force,” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford said.
The caps on defense spending were part of a series of deals struck by Congress to reduce federal spending. All areas of the government are targeted and under the caps, defense would be allowed only a $1.7-billion increase to $523 billion over the next fiscal year, though leaked copies of the White House fiscal 2016 request show DOD asking for a $38 billion increase.
Dunford said flat budgets in recent years have forced the Marines to prioritize spending on its deployed forces — about 31,000 Marines — and left half its nondeployed troops with shortfalls in personnel, equipment and training.
Further cuts would mean even less training as well as older equipment and facilities, echoing the 190,000-strong Marine Corps force a generation ago that struggled to keep high-quality personnel following a drawdown from the Vietnam War, Dunford said.
It required 5-7 years of spending and investment on the military in the 1980s to recover troop morale, he said.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said only about 30 percent of that service’s brigade combat teams are fully trained and ready to fight on deployment, even without the coming caps. The Army is now also planning a 65 percent drop in specialized skill training, causing a backlog of soldiers that will require years to clear out and add to the struggle to groom leadership, according to the general.
“You can’t just do that [training] episodically. You have to do it in a continuous manner,” Odierno said. “My concern is that as [soldiers] see ... maybe we are not going to invest in [readiness]. They lose faith that we are going to give them the training and materials that they need to succeed in this incredibly complex world we face.”
The frustration caused by underfunding and a lack of adequate training can cascade throughout the ranks, said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert.
“You are sitting around the classroom looking at your strike fighter Hornet and it looks really great, but it is sitting on the tarmac,” Greenert said.
The idle time can lead to increased alcohol use among servicemembers and more problems for military families, he said.
Committee chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has sharply criticized reductions in military spending amid what he says is surging global conflicts with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as Russia, Iran and China.
The United States should heed the lesson learned from the post-Vietnam drawdown and not lose quality servicemembers through a lack of funding, McCain said.
“It seems,” he said, “that it is always the best and the brightest who leave first.”