WASHINGTON — A pair of influential senators are readying a proposal to give Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel more flexibility in handling the ongoing across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on Tuesday described those cuts as a “disaster” and said he and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are drafting an amendment to a coming defense policy bill that would ease the situation.
McCain's comments came the same day that Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, renewed warnings about the threat to military readiness posed by federal budget constraints.
Hagel also issued a fresh plea for Congress to act on that front as he outlined his vision for adapting the Pentagon to a volatile, post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan world.
He was the keynote speaker at the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Global Security Forum.
Much of the speech dealt with the challenge of operating effectively while locked into the indiscriminate, restrictive funding cuts now on the books.
“We face the danger that our current budget crisis — and the steep, abrupt and deep cuts imposed by sequestration — will cause an unnecessary, strategically unsound and dangerous degradation in military readiness and capability,” Hagel told a room filled with foreign dignitaries and global security experts.
While the Pentagon has sought to shield deploying units from those cuts, Hagel noted that doing so puts the burden on units not currently being deployed.
The readiness of those units is undermined as training is curtailed, flying hours reduced and exercises canceled. He said the persistence of sequestration could lead to a “readiness crisis” as time goes on.
“We may have to accept the reality that not every unit will be at maximum readiness, and some kind of a tiered readiness system is perhaps inevitable,” Hagel said. “This carries the risk that the president of the United States would have fewer options to fulfill our national security objectives.”
Asked about Hagel's points, McCain said he agreed with his former colleague about what could be on the horizon.
“I think he's looking at options, none of which are very pleasant,” McCain said.
Graham also echoed Hagel's warnings.
“To allow sequestration to be fully implemented would be one of the most irresponsible acts in the history of Congress,” said Graham. “It would devastate our military capability.”
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, struck a somewhat less ominous note, saying she wants to see what proposals come forward.
“Is the sequester a challenge for defense? Yes it is, but there's also a number of senators on both sides who are on the Armed Services Committee who are trying to address that,” Fischer said.
“Our main goal is to make sure this country is secure and that we're defended and that we take care of our military personnel. That's not going to change with the sequester.”
Hagel said in his speech that Congress needs to do something about the nearly $1 trillion in budget cuts over 10 years facing the Pentagon.
“These cuts are too fast, too much, too abrupt, and too irresponsible,” Hagel said in his speech.
While lawmakers are at it, Hagel also urged them to help the Defense Department address rising personnel costs that threaten to create a force of fighting men and women who are well-compensated but poorly trained and equipped.
“Congress must permit meaningful reforms as they slash the overall budget,” Hagel said.
“We will need Congress as a willing partner in making tough choices to bend the cost curve on personnel, while meeting all of our responsibilities to all of our people.”
In broader terms, Hagel talked about the need for a little humility about what exactly the American military can and should be used for.
“Military force must always remain an option — but it should always be an option of last resort,” Hagel said. “The military should always play a supporting role, not the leading role, in America's foreign policy.”
John Pike, a military analyst and director of GlobalSecurity.org, downplayed Hagel's budget warnings, saying the military already has a system of tiered readiness represented by the National Guard and reserves.
Pike said he was surprised that sequestration was allowed to go into effect but said the armed forces seem to be fumbling their way through it now.
“Now that it's here, well, it doesn't seem to be nearly as bad as we were warned,” Pike said. “The sky hasn't fallen yet.”
He also questioned all the talk about military “readiness,” saying the question is readiness to do what?
“It was one thing during the Cold War, when we basically had to deal with the possibility of a Soviet sneak attack,” he said. “I don't think we have to worry about a sneak attack.”