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Army: Sequester Ripples Will Harm Everything From Garbage Pickups To Training

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

PENTAGON: With the arbitrary and automatic cuts called sequestration to take effect on Friday, the Army is scrambling to figure out exactly how budget shortfalls will screw up everything from barracks repairs to combat training. “As recently as yesterday,” the Army’s budget director, Maj. Gen. Karen Dyson, told reporters this morning, “the Army senior leaders were involved in a four-hour ROC [rehearsal of concepts] drill to over those kinds of decisions.”

Perhaps the most worrying cutback is to combat training. The Army already knows it will cancel all full-brigade wargames except for a single brigade that will deploy to Afghanistan, a mission the service insists it cannot shortchange. But the Army has not yet issued detailed guidance to commanders on lower-level training, because it just doesn’t know. “It’s not that all training will stop [above] the squad level,” as stated in some Army documents, said Dyson.

“It depends on the type of unit,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Dyess, director of the “Force Development” (G-8) section of the Army’s Pentagon staff. Having served in both light infantry and heavy armor units, Dyess noted it’s much cheaper to train foot troops than soldiers who drive vehicles: There may not be money for repairs, spare parts, or fuel, but you can march to the rifle range for free – although the range may be shut down because there’s no money to pay the safety officer. And if the base commander has to cancel contracts with civilian service companies, those soldiers may have to spend their time hauling trash and mowing grass instead of training.

The impacts are insanely complicated to calculate because of the interacting ripple effects from budget cuts to different commands. It’s less like throwing a rock into a pond to watch the waves and more like throwing a dozen rocks of different sizes all at once. Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) and Forces Command (FORSCOM) pay for training, for example, but Installations and Management Command (IMCOM) operates the training facilities, while Army Materiel Command (AMC) and its nationwide network of depots do major repairs a unit can’t do itself.

“For example, if AMC says they can’t perform maintenance on trucks,” said Dyson, “then TRADOC needs to consider cancelling the training” for transportation units, because even if there’s money in the training account, “they won’t have trucks to train on.”

Installation Management Command is one of the hardest functions hit. The Continuing Resolution’s prohibition on “new starts” has put all base construction on indefinite hold, and on its own initiative the Army has slashed IMCOM’s day-to-day operations spending to free up funds for other priorities, like training and equipping troops headed for Afghanistan. The Army’s trying to protect counseling, childcare, and other priority programs for military families, but at least some of those will be cut back as well.

“There are actually about $400 million worth of service contracts that we’re reviewing,” said Brig. Gen. Curt Rauhut, director of resource management for IMCOM. “We’re making those decisions right now” for everything from on-base element schools to garbage removal.

The service has already decided to defer essentially all maintenance at its bases – which will certainly cost more in the long run and may make life distinctly uncomfortable in the meantime. “[For] a soldier living in a barracks that has a leaky roof, we may not be able to fund that to repair that roof,” Rahuat said. “We may have to just throw a tarp over it. [If], say, a window is broken, we may not be able to replace that window; we may have to provide a piece of plywood.”

Such trickle-down impacts across the Army will take weeks and months to become clear. “It’s not a big explosive event on the first of March,” said Dyson. “It’s more like getting on a treadmill” — the kind in a comedy skit that gets faster and faster until you fall right off.

The Army has already taken steps to cut costs, such as a hiring freeze on civilian personnel. It’s done so in anticipation of not only the sequestration cuts but also of two other budget crunches. First is an extension to October of the current Continuing Resolution, which funds the federal government at 2012 levels, with no provision for new programs or new circumstances, in the absence of a 2013 spending bill. Second is looming shortfalls in the wartime fund known as Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), largely because unexpected Pakistani truculence on key supply lines is driving up the cost of the Afghan war. Each problem – sequester, CR, and OCO – would take about $6 billion out of Army readiness funds — what the Army, in a bit of grim humor, refers to as “6-6-6” — for a total impact of $18 billion. Sequester would also cut another $6 billion cut out of activities not directly related to readiness, such as developing new equipment, but 6666 doesn’t have the same Biblical ring to it.

Sequestration starts taking effect March 1st, but the Defense Department won’t be able to implement it all at once. One of the biggest savings measures, the furlough — mandatory unpaid leave for almost every civil servant for one day a week for 22 weeks – won’t begin until April 22nd, for example. (Military personnel’s salaries, the service’s biggest single expense, are off-limits — which creates as many problems as it solves). Meanwhile, the current Continuing Resolution expires March 27th – leading to a government shutdown if Congress doesn’t act – and the costs of the war are a constantly moving target.

So the Army will have to figure out many of the impacts as it goes along. “By about Memorial Day, you would see our civilian workforce very much impacted” as the furlough begins, Dyson said. Likewise, “by Memorial Day, we’ll know what of our summer training cannot happen.”

Of course, there’s always the possibility that Congress and the White House may cut a deal to defer sequestration, enact proper appropriations, or just give the military more leeway in how it applies the cuts. But right now the gridlock looks intractable — and the Army is already planning how to absorb sequestration cuts over the next nine years.

Edited at 6:25 pm

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