By Senior National Security Producer Charley Keyes
A senior military leader warned Congress Thursday that further budget cuts will mean lost lives in future conflicts.
"There is just a tendency to believe at the end of a war that we will never need ground forces again. I'll tell you that we've never got that right," said Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army. "We have always required them. We just don't have the imagination to predict when that will be."
Chiarelli was testifying before the Readiness Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee along with high-level officers from the other services.
"And quite frankly, let's be honest, it has cost us lives," Chiarelli said of cuts in the aftermath of previous wars. "Cost us lives at Kasserine Pass" in Tunisia in World War II," it cost us lives at Task Force Smith in Korea. It cost us lives every single time."
Chiarelli's blunt talk of deadly flesh-and-blood consequences broke free of the usual budget debate on the risk of a "hollowed-out force," and the cost of "modernization."
And his warnings were echoed by the other services, as the military decides how to absorb more than $450 billion in cuts already planned for the coming decade and argues against an additional slash of $600 billion that would be triggered automatically if Congress cannot reach agreement on targeted cuts.
Adm. Mark E. Ferguson, the vice chief of naval operations, said forced cuts, under the process known as sequestration, would have dramatic consequences on capabilities. "That impact on our industrial base and our Navy would be immediate, severe and long-lasting and would fundamentally change the Navy we have today," Ferguson said.
The assistant commandant of the Marines, Gen. Joseph Dunford, warned of significant consequences if the force is scaled back.
"We will not be there to deter our potential adversaries, we won't be there to assure our potential friends, or our allies, and we certainly won't be there to contain small crises before they become major conflagrations," Dunford said.
Lawmakers on the committee, who have generally been vocal in criticizing the potential cuts, expressed sympathy with the military leaders.
The subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Virginia, said the Department of Defense "has also already made tough decisions on force structure and civilian personnel, shrinking the Marine Corps by more than 15,000 Marines, the active Army by 49,000 soldiers," as well as freezing Defense Department civilian jobs at fiscal year 2010 levels.
"The fact is, we now face strategic uncertainties - uncertainties such as whether the U.S. can maintain its proud tradition of air superiority or whether the vital amphibious capability of the Marine Corps is sustainable," Forbes said.
One reminder of the size and complexity of the defense budget is the running disagreement on how many cuts the Pentagon already is planning.
"It's hard to actually get the exact number," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R- , the committee's chairman. "It's somewhere between $450 and $500 billion that you are dealing with."
And as a reminder of how emotion-charged the budget debate has become, McKeon appeared to be overcome while discussing how the government must not break its promises to young men and women in military about their future.
"I think about these young men that are going outside the wire over in Afghanistan, every day on patrol." McKeon said in his closing remarks at the hearing. "And if they are having to think about what's happening with my future, instead of concentrating on IEDs, or snipers or on ambushes or not being to be totally focused on their jobs, that puts them at risk today, needlessly."
McKeon choked up and could not continue.