Top officials from four branches of the U.S. military said Tuesday that tight defense budgets have strained their ability to replenish capacity from two wars, meet current demands and assure readiness for future conflicts.
“We are consuming readiness as fast as we are building it,” General Daniel Allyn, the Army's vice chief of staff, said in testimony before a Senate Armed Services subcommittee.
“Twenty-five years of continuous combat, coupled with budget instability and lower-than-planned top lines [budgets], have made the Air Force one of the smallest, oldest and least ready in our history,” said Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force's vice chief of staff.
“The gap between the military we need and the military we have has grown,” said Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. “Our defense budgets must be based on our national security interests and the threats that we face, not artificial budget caps.”
U.S. military spending has declined from nearly $700 billion in 2010 to $560 billion last year, and is not projected to top $600 billion before the end of the decade.
Defense expenditures, already declining as wars wound down in Iraq and Afghanistan, were trimmed further by automatic spending cuts known as sequestration beginning in 2011.
Still in a 'straitjacket'
“Fourteen years of sustained combat, together with the Budget Control Act of 2011, have presented the nation with a unique readiness challenge. It’s kind of a perfect storm,” said Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. “A lot of things have happened since 2011. That was pre-Ebola, pre-Zika, pre-North Korean cyber attacks, pre-ISIL, pre-Russia into the Ukraine. The world has changed dramatically, and yet we are still living under a significant straitjacket.”
Last year’s bipartisan spending accord provided a two-year respite from sequestration. But strains on military services continue, the vice chiefs said.
“The Navy continues to postpone much needed repairs and upgrades for the majority of our infrastructure,” said Admiral Michelle Howard, vice chief of naval operations. “We are still paying down the readiness debt we accrued over the last decade, but more slowly than we would prefer and at continued risk to our shore infrastructure.”
“The Marine Corps is no longer in a healthy position to generate current readiness,” said General John Paxton, Marine Corps assistant commandant. “We continue to make hard trade-offs, and we mortgage our future readiness because we’re trying to fight today’s fight.”
The budget squeeze is likely to continue unless lawmakers tackle America’s fiscal challenges, Kaine said.
“We can’t just say the deficit doesn’t matter, because it does,” the senator said. “The need to relieve sequester is going to demand of us a willingness to show backbone and find some reforms in these areas that in the past has been difficult to do.
“I really pray that, as a U.S. senator, I’m going to get to cast a vote on a big tax reform and spending reform package that will enable us to put sequester in the dustbin where it belongs.”