The nation’s top military officer warned Wednesday that automatic defense cuts agreed to in last year’s bipartisan debt limit deal could lead to more war.
At a Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pentagon has gone along with recent targeted cuts to limited targeted cuts, but argued that the the sweeping across-the-board cuts in the so-called sequestration would weaken the country’s ability to deter adversaries and therefore lead to more war.
“Sequestration is absolutely certain to upend this balance. It would lead to further end-strength reductions, the potential cancellation of major weapons systems and the disruption of global operations,” Dempsey said. “We can’t yet say precisely how bad the damage would be, but it is clear that sequestration would risk hollowing out our force and reducing its military options available to the nation. We would go from being unquestionably powerful everywhere to being less visible globally and presenting less of an overmatch to our adversaries, and that would translate into a different deterrent calculus, and potentially, therefore, increase the likelihood of conflict.”
The remarks suggest that Pentagon leaders are all but hitting the panic button over the defense cuts — totaling half a trillion over 10 years and set to take effect Jan. 1 — and aren’t taking for granted that Congress will act to avert them. They would occur along with $490 billion in existing defense cuts over a decade.
Neither party is happy with the sequestration trigger, even though both agreed to it as a deficit reduction fall-back if Congress failed to find budget savings elsewhere. House Republicans ditched their end of the debt-limit bargain and passed legislation last month to replace the defense with cuts to domestic programs for middle- and low-income people. But President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) insist they will not get rid of the sequester unless the GOP agrees to a balanced package that includes new revenues, i.e., taxes, which Republicans have refused to do.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who sat beside Dempsey at the hearing, also repeated his persistent call for Congress to repeal the sequestration cuts. Dempsey’s offensive adds pressure on the White House — which did not immediately comment for this article — to either broker a deal or offer a more detailed stance on how Democrats want to deal with the sequester.
“There is a huge contrast between House Republicans and the Democrats who run Washington on the defense sequester. President Obama’s Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, says the cuts that President Obama insisted on including in the Budget Control Act would ‘hollow out’ our Armed Forces, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff went a step further yesterday, warning that the defense sequester could lead to a new war,” said House Speaker John Boehner’s spokesman Michael Steel in a statement. “House Republicans have acted to protect America’s national security. … Where is President Obama in all this? Does he agree with Sen. Reid or Secretary Panetta?”
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.