WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Wednesday that the Pentagon may have to mothball up to three Navy aircraft carriers and order additional sharp reductions in the size of the Army and Marine Corps if Congress doesn’t act to avoid massive budget cuts beginning in 2014.
Speaking to Pentagon reporters, and indirectly to Congress, Hagel said that the full result of the sweeping budget cuts over the next 10 years could leave the nation with an ill-prepared, under-equipped military doomed to face more technologically advanced enemies.
In his starkest terms to date, Hagel laid out a worst-case scenario for the U.S. military if the Pentagon is forced to slash more than $50 billion from the 2014 budget and $500 billion over the next 10 years as a result of congressionally mandated automatic spending cuts.
The Pentagon has been ratcheting up a persistent drumbeat about the dire effects of the budget cuts on national defense as Congress continues to wrangle over spending bills on Capitol Hill.
But Hagel insisted that the department is not exaggerating the impact.
“I know there’s politics in all this,” Hagel said. “But what we’re trying to project here is not crying wolf or not trying to overstate or overhype.”
Sitting alongside Hagel, Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said a major frustration is that the Pentagon doesn’t know what budget totals Congress will eventually decide on, or when lawmakers will make a decision.
“What we were doing here is teeing up choices. We haven’t made those choices yet,” Winnefeld said.
Going from 11 to eight or nine carrier strike groups would bring the Navy to its lowest number since World War II. And the troop cuts could shear the Army back to levels not seen since 1940.
Detailing options, Hagel said America may have to choose between having a highly capable but significantly smaller military and having a larger force while reducing special operations forces, limiting research and cutting or curtailing plans to upgrade weapons systems.
That second option, he said, would likely result in the U.S. military using older, less effective equipment against more technologically advanced adversaries. And it would have a greater impact on private defense companies around the country.
The U.S., Hagel said, risks fielding a military force that in the next few years would be unprepared due to a lack of training, maintenance and upgraded equipment.