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Health coverage for Defense workers at risk under sequestration

Defense leaders warned a Senate committee Tuesday that unless Congress undoes mandatory budget cuts scheduled to go into effect March 1, the Defense Department will face furloughs of civilian employees, cut training, maintenance and flying hours and possibly be faced with cutting health care for Defense employees.

“Now the wolf is at the door,” said Ashton B. Carter, Deputy Secretary of Defense, who said the cuts are “purely the collateral damage of political gridlock.”

Carter joined other defense leaders to testify yet again to the Senate Armed Services Committee about the impact of cuts of $1.2 trillion over the next decade scheduled to go into effect beginning March 1.

The difference: This time, they had examples of how the cuts would impact Defense personnel and put the nation at risk. And they made their arguments some two weeks before the first cuts — $85 billion, with $46 billion from Defense over the next seven months – were scheduled to begin going into effect.

The cuts were created under the 2011 Budget Control Act, a bill that raised the debt ceiling in exchange for spending cuts. The cuts are designed to take proportionate, across-the-board cuts from most discretionary programs, with Defense accounting for about half of the cuts.

Carter said the cuts, combined with Congress’ inability to pass a Defense spending bill, would lead to a “true crisis” in military readiness if the cuts go through over the next decade.

“The reality is we can’t protect much of which is of value to the country,” he said.

He and others on the panel testified that the impact would be sweeping:

  • Most of the 800,000 Defense civilian employees would be furloughed for an average of one day per week for up to 22 weeks – resulting in a 20 percent pay cut for most civilian Defense employees.
  • The Air Force would be forced to cut flying hours sharply, and have to reduce weapon system sustainment funding by some 30 percent, making it unable to respond on short notice to emergencies.
  • The Defense Department would be short between $2 billion and $3 billion for money to pay for health care for Defense employees.

And that’s short term. Long-term, military chiefs predicted a shrinking fleet for the Navy, fewer aircraft for the Air Force and no ability to modernize and an Army reduced by about 40 percent in combat power and forced to look at closing bases.

“None of us walk away or runs away from a crisis or a fight. That’s not our nature,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “But I will tell you personally — if ever the force is so degraded and so unready and then we are asked to use it, it would be immoral to use the force unless it’s well-trained, well-led and well-equipped.”

The Defense leaders testified even as news of North Korea testing another nuclear weapons was breaking. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the situation “kind of Orwellian,” and cited North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Mali, Egypt and Tunisia as other hot spots around the globe that required a strong U.S. defense.

“We are probably in a more unsettled period since the end of the Cold War than certainly I have ever seen,” he said. “This is really a disconnect.”

The Air Force has already made moves to cut about $2.9 billion of the $12.4 billion it’s supposed to cut this year, testified Gen. Mark Welsh III, Air Force chief of staff. The rest will have to come from modernization, operations and maintenance and reducing the size of the force, and its impacts, he said, would be felt for years.

Gen. James Amos, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, said the cuts send a message of vulnerability to potential enemies and shakes the confidence of U.S. allies. Combined, he said, the cuts “will have a deleterious effect on global order.”

“Sequestration should not be viewed solely as a budget issue,” he said.

The impact will also weigh heavily on defense contractors.

Carter said that furloughing civilian employees would only save $5 billion of the $46 billion that the Defense Department needs to cut over the next seven months. Most of the rest of the cuts, he said, will likely be absorbed by contractors.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said that the Army uses 3,000 small contractors. If the cuts go through, 1,100 will be at moderate to high risk of bankruptcy.

Those contractors “build our systems, provide some experience we can’t keep in house,” Carter said. “Of that $41 billion, much will go to cutting their work for us.”

“Have you run out of adjectives to describe how bad this is?” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked.

“I have a degree in English from Duke University,” Dempsey replied, “and the answer is yes.”

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