Army Secretary John McHugh described in harsh detail the impact deep funding cuts from sequestration had on the Army in this first year alone and warned that the painful reductions will continue.
"I wish I could promise you that better days were ahead, but I can’t. The indiscriminate cuts will continue," McHugh said at the opening ceremony of the Association of the United States Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center Oct. 21.
McHugh also lamented the turmoil created by the 16-day shutdown of the federal government, particularly its impact on the Army’s civilian workers, who were furloughed or required to work without pay because Congress could not approve any funding for the new fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
That came on top of the earlier furloughs forced by sequestration and the fact that all government employees have not received a pay raise for three years.
"We’re blessed ... that they stuck with us. We owe them a debt of gratitude," he said, drawing applause from the audience.
In a news conference later, McHugh said an early estimate of the financial cost of the shutdown was $150 million and 485 acquisition programs "impacted negatively."
And that does not reflect the impact on the thousands of soldiers who were unable to train, he said.
"We’ve had very, very significant impacts that we’ll be dealing with for a long time."
In discussing the damage inflicted by sequestration, McHugh noted that the Army and the other services had been warned by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates that as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan ended, their budgets would be reduced.
"We thought that we would have the time to get it right. ... We were wrong," he said.
Although the Army had "established a glide path that if successfully implemented" would not have undermined readiness, "something happened – sequestration," which was supposed to be "so terrible no one in their right minds would allow it to happen."
Adding, "Unfortunately, the right minds were out of town that day."
Faced with making deep cuts in programs in the last six months of the last fiscal year, McHugh said the Army made every possible adjustment it could to "prioritize our needs."
But despite their efforts "the fiscal reality has extracted a hard cost."
Sequestration has cost the Army $1.7 billion in just the first year, he said, resulting in hundreds of vehicles and thousands of communications systems out of service for lack of maintenance and soldiers unable to train.
"We were forced to rob Peter to pay Paul, then Paul got furloughed," McHugh said.
Adding, "This is no way to run the greatest Army in the world and certainly no way to run the greatest nation in the world."
But, he noted, "The way forward is as difficult as it is complex," because they do not know what level of funding they will have for the remainder of this fiscal year and the next year.
Joining McHugh at the news conference, Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said what worries him is how the sequestration cuts "affected our ability to properly train soldiers."
"Right now we have in the Army, two brigades that are trained," in addition to the brigades that are deploying to Afghanistan, Odierno said.
But, he added, the two going to Afghanistan are deployed to advise and assist Afghan forces, rather than for engaging in combat themselves.
The chief said they have set aside part of their limited funds to increase training next year, and hope to get up to seven trained brigades.
McHugh noted that some defense analyst claim that sequestration would only take the Army budget back to 2002 or 2003.
"The truth is this isn’t 2002 or 2003. The cost of things we buy has gone up," as has the cost of family programs.
"I would argue that those kinds of comparisons are not relevant."
But, he added, "the chief and I have made a commitment, regardless of whatever the Army budgets look like, we will not send a soldier into combat untrained or under-equipped."
Asked about the impact of sequestration on Army programs, the two leaders listed their priorities as a next generation ground combat vehicle, a replacement for the Humvee, which would be the JLTV, an improved command and control network and a replacement for the H-60 helicopters.
"The concern that we have, even those kinds of programs will be affected," McHugh said.
And Odierno added, "We need all that, but we can’t afford all that. We have to make decisions."
The two Army leaders also expressed concern about the restrictions on managing programs and the uncertainty inflicted by the fact they are working under the Continuing Resolution (CR) that runs out Jan. 15.
As a result, the Army staff has had to develop two budget plans for this year, one with and one without continued sequestration, and is working on two budgets for the next year, he explained.
And because the CR is based on the previous year, the funding is misaligned with current needs, McHugh said.