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Pentagon No. 2 Flags Worries About Staying Ready for N. Korea

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

U.S. Marines march south of Seoul last month as part of military exercises staged with South Korea. A senior Defense Department official on Tuesday said the Pentagon’s ability to keep forces ready for possible Korean Peninsula hostilities might be harmed by any long-term budget reduction mandates (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man). U.S. Marines march south of Seoul last month as part of military exercises staged with South Korea. A senior Defense Department official on Tuesday said the Pentagon’s ability to keep forces ready for possible Korean Peninsula hostilities might be harmed by any long-term budget reduction mandates (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man).

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Defense Department’s deputy secretary on Tuesday renewed the Pentagon’s commitment to keep forces ready for possible hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, but said deep budget cuts to military training accounts could harm long-term preparedness.

“We’re working as hard as we can to make sure that our commitments to things like the Peninsula [are] protected to the maximum degree possible,” Ashton Carter said in remarks at the National Press Club. “We are doing that and we will keep doing that.

“But it comes under increasing stress as time goes on,” he added, alluding to $37 billion in across-the-board reductions for the remainder of the current fiscal year, mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act. “We’ll have to see what happens as the years go by.”

Unless Congress takes new action, the law will require $500 billion in so-called sequestration reductions at the Pentagon over the next decade.

The Defense Department seeks to “limit effects” of sequester cuts “to the extent feasible” in maintaining a U.S. capability to fight with almost no notice in Korea, if a conflict were to erupt there, according to a budget slide Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale showed reporters last month.

The extensive cutbacks to military training and operations in each of the four services come amid heightened tensions with North Korea following its third nuclear test in February and the suspected use of chemical weapons in Syria. Either of these hotspots could potentially draw Washington into armed conflict in coming weeks or months.

Carter said protecting U.S. troop readiness for a potential outbreak of hostilities with Pyongyang should remain feasible because it is “one of the areas that we can most clearly identify” as a possible threat.

By contrast, as Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps day-to-day training and exercises are cut back it will be more difficult to maintain “our capability to respond to the unforeseen” elsewhere around the globe, he said. “There will be an impact there.”

Carter is leading a Strategic Choices and Management Review, which is to advise Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel by late May how best to apportion reductions in 2014 and beyond. Thus far the review team has “framed” roughly one-third to one-half of the investment choices facing the Pentagon, he said, without offering further details.

The No. 2 official called the obligation under sequestration to take proportionate cuts from almost every part of the budget “the worst managerial approach possible” and said it is “not only stupid, it’s not safe.”

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in February said the U.S. military stood “on the verge of a readiness crisis” because of operations-and-maintenance funding shortfalls.

The operating budget, Carter said, accounts for roughly $20 billion of the remaining $37 billion in Defense reductions for fiscal 2013, which ends Sept. 30. To protect frontline troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the reductions in military training and exercises back home must be deeper, he said.

Hagel has not yet determined whether Pentagon civilians will be subjected to furlough later this year, Carter said.

Any such move, which Defense leaders would like to avoid, would be based on a need for “balancing where we take cuts as the year goes on,” he said.

Putting “some or most” non-uniformed Defense employees on part-time service for the final months of the year could be one way of “trying to free up funding that would then go to critical readiness functions.”

Carter called the mandatory across-the-board cuts “purely the collateral damage of political gridlock.”

He implored Congress to grant President Obama’s request for a $615 billion Defense budget alternative in fiscal 2014 that would avert $52 billion in cuts otherwise imposed for the coming budget year.

“We have -- and will still have -- the most formidable military in the world,” Carter said. “But we are accepting unnecessary risk.”

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