By Donna Miles
The Pentagon comptroller painted a sobering picture of the Defense Department’s fiscal landscape today, telling members of the financial community that unless sequestration is de-triggered soon, military readiness will suffer deeply.
The continuing resolution that President Barack Obama signed into law this week provides slight relief in authorizing the Defense Department to shift funds between certain accounts, Undersecretary of Defense Robert F. Hale told the American Society of Comptrollers and the Association of Government Accountants in a webcast presentation.
The resolution, which provides DOD funding through September, allows the department to move more than $10 billion of its fiscal 2013 appropriation to operations and maintenance accounts. It also loosened restrictions on new weapons programs, weapons purchases and military construction projects.
“But it did not solve all our problems” in funding department operations through the rest of the fiscal year, particularly in light of sequestration, Hale said.
The mandatory budget cuts that began taking effect March 1 also are having an impact across the military, he said, with deeper ones to come next month.
Anticipating fiscal challenges through the rest of fiscal 2013, which ends Sept. 30, the department took near-term actions to limit the impact, Hale said. It imposed civilian hiring freezes in all but mission-critical jobs, laid off temporary and term employees, cut back sharply on travel and conferences and “essentially stopped all facilities maintenance at bases,” he said.
“We are in triage mode in terms of getting through this year,” Hale added. “But these near-term actions won’t solve the problems of sequestration.”
Throughout the budget planning process, DOD has taken pains to support wartime operations, he said. “You can’t leave troops in Afghanistan without the funds needed to protect themselves and wind down the war responsibility,” Hale said.
But with wartime costs far higher than anticipated two years ago, Hale said, the only way to offset them has been through deeper cuts in the base part of the budget that pays for other day-to-day activities.
“When you add up all these effects, instead of an 8 percent cut, you are talking 15 to 20 percent for the remaining part of fiscal year 2013,” he said. The percentage of these cuts varies by service, with the Army taking the deepest ones, he added.
Sequestration will begin cutting even more deeply next month, with Hale projecting “a real crisis” in the operations and maintenance budget, with the potential for “severely adverse effects on our military readiness.”
“I think you will, unfortunately, see a number of Air Force squadrons stand down training entirely for their pilots,” he said, noting that restoring lapsed flying certifications will take time and money. “You will see significant training cutbacks in the Army and other services. You will see maintenance cutbacks as we stop maintaining our weapons systems.”
These actions would directly affect readiness — a real concern, Hale said, particularly if military forces are called on to confront another contingency later this year. “We won’t have forces that are adequately ready and will either have to make the choice to deploy with less-trained forces or take extra time to get them ready,” he said.
This year’s fiscal crisis will spill into fiscal 2014, which DOD will start in “a state of damaged readiness,” Hale said.
In addition to wartime operations, DOD will continue to prioritize other top-priority missions, including wounded warrior programs and nuclear deterrence efforts, to ensure they are fully funded, he said. Meanwhile, planners will strive to limit cuts that affect forward-deployed forces, particularly in South Korea and other high-threat areas, and the availability of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets in critical theaters.
The budget also will protect family programs to the greatest extent possible, although Hale acknowledged that it won’t be across the board. The DOD Education Activity, for example, won’t be exempt from civilian furloughs, but DOD will limit the number of furlough days to ensure students meet the minimum required school days to qualify for a credible year, he said.
Departmentwide civilian furloughs, as unsavory as they may be, are essential in dealing with the formidable fiscal 2013 budget challenges, Hale said. Without them, DOD would have to take even deeper training and maintenance cuts, he explained.
Furloughs will be instituted consistently and fairly across the department, Hale said, with “some very limited exceptions” for civilians serving in the combat zone or in jobs that directly impact life and property.
Hale expressed hope that Congress and the president can reach a deal that ends sequestration and lifts at least part of the challenge of working through “very difficult times.”
Source: American Forces Press Service