Special Reports

Freeze possible on military promotions, recruiting

Failure by Congress to end budget sequestration could force the services in fiscal 2014 to freeze military promotions, suspend recruiting and halt all change-of-station moves, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned in a letter Wednesday to leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Automatic budget cuts already are “severely damaging military readiness,” Hagel wrote to committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and ranking Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma. Without relief, defense spending will take another $52 billion hit in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

If Congress lets that happen, by continuing to refuse to compromise on a debt-reduction deal, the Department of Defense will keep a civilian hiring freeze in place, continue to neglect facilities maintenance, deepen cuts to weapon programs, and impose “an extremely severe package of military personnel actions including halting all accessions, ending all permanent change-of-station moves, stopping discretionary bonuses and freezing all promotions,” Hagel wrote to introduce a budget “contingency plan.”

Levin and Inhofe had asked Hagel to describe how keeping sequestration in place would impact defense budgets and national security. They are worried that “many members of Congress and the American public still seem to have the view that sequestration is an effective way to cut government spending, and can be made workable simply by providing the Department with additional flexibility or making minor adjustments.”

Hagel said any debt-reduction deal to remove sequestration still would require Congress to make hard choices as defense budgets fall, to be able to preserve readiness, modernize weapon systems and sustain combat power. The hard choices, Hagel wrote, must include temporary caps on military pay raises and higher Tricare fees on military retirees.

Congress also must allow retirement of lower-priority weapons including older ships and aircraft, remove restrictions on the rate of drawdown for U.S. ground forces, and support other cost-saving moves including a new round of base closings, Hagel wrote.

If sequestration continues and Congress won’t support these cost-saving proposals in President Barack Obama’s budget, U.S. combat capability will take an even deeper hit in 2014 and beyond, Hagel said.

There are plenty of details in his plan to frighten legislators about deepening defense budget cuts. This Congress, however, has shown itself more immune than most to reasoned arguments and rational compromise.

If Congress keeps sequestration in place, Hagel calls for a more rapid force drawdown than current law allows, with some involuntary separations likely, perhaps even affecting personnel recently returned from Afghanistan.

“Implementing sequester-level cuts would be made even more difficult if Congress fails to support the military pay raise of 1 percent proposed in the president’s (fiscal year) 2014 budget. If that raise grows to 1.8 percent, as some in Congress have proposed, it would add about $500 million in (fiscal year) 2014 funding requirements, which would force even larger cuts in other spending categories,” according to Hagel’s plan.

One impact on readiness from a $52 billion cut might be reduced flight hours for two Navy air wings, which the plan calls key counter-terrorism assets. The Army already has canceled many training rotations at its combat training centers, with more cancellations likely. The Air Force stopped flying one-third of its “combat coded” active squadrons, significantly reducing training at more than half of its active flying units. Maintenance cutbacks could worsen, further threatening future readiness, Hagel said.