WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned lawmakers Wednesday of severe and unacceptable effects on the U.S. military if Congress doesn't end the automatic spending cuts projected to slice $52 billion from the defense budget for 2014.
The budget reductions would reduce the size, readiness and technological superiority of the military, placing "at much greater risk the country's ability to meet our current national security requirements," Hagel wrote in a letter to the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Hagel told Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and James Inhofe, R-Okla., that the Defense Department hopes to avoid a second year of furloughs of civilian personnel during the 2014 budget year that begins Oct. 1. But he says if the cuts stay in effect, the department will have to consider involuntary reductions in force to reduce personnel costs.
Roughly 85 percent of the department's nearly 900,000 civilians around the world will be furloughed one day each week over the next three months as a result of the across-the-board cuts in the current budget year.
The letter was the strongest statement to date from Hagel pushing back against congressional resistance to alternative Pentagon proposals to save money. The administration has called for another round of domestic base closings, elimination of several weapons systems, a speedier drawdown in the size of the Army and Marine Corps, and increased fees for health care. Yet the House and Senate, in crafting their versions of a defense authorization bill, have soundly rejected the Pentagon plans.
For months, senior U.S. military leaders, including Hagel's predecessor, Leon Panetta, have called on Congress to stop the budget cuts, known as sequestration, or face the consequences of a military unable to handle all of its missions around the world.
But even with sequestration, the Pentagon will still maintain a total annual budget, adjusted for inflation, of well over $500 billion a year for the rest of the decade, according to Todd Harrison of the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. That's a modest reduction when compared to the previous drawdowns in defense spending that came after the wars in Korea and Vietnam and the Cold War.
Hagel's letter "reads more like posturing than planning," according to Harrison, who said the Defense Department has not adequately communicated what the real effects of sequestration will be because it has not done the detailed planning to know.
"Instead, it has left Congress with vague, nonspecific threats of what would happen, which in the 2013 budget turned out to be inaccurate in many cases and ultimately proved ineffective in persuading Congress," Harrison said.
Hagel cautioned of cuts in the force to deal with the required budget reductions.
Specifically, the Pentagon chief took issue with the move in the House to increase the military pay raise from the proposed 1 percent to 1.8 percent. He said that would added about half a billion dollars to budget expenses and and "would force even larger cuts in other spending categories."
"If Congress does not approve these proposals, even more cuts in combat power, readiness and modernization would be needed to accommodate cuts of $52 billion in fiscal year 2014 and similar cuts in later years," Hagel wrote.
The automatic cuts kicked in March 1 and are the result of Congress' failure to trim the deficit by $1.2 trillion over a decade.
The Pentagon must reduce its 2013 budget by roughly $41 billion by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. In addition to furloughs of civilian employees, the armed forces are scaling back essential training and maintenance programs to deal with the lower spending levels.
Separately, the military also has to absorb a $487 billion reduction in defense spending over the next 10 years mandated by the Budget Control Act passed in 2011.