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Dempsey Details Fiscal Concerns Facing Department

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 10, 2012 – The environment facing the military comes down to balancing strategic challenges with fiscal realities, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said during a town hall meeting yesterday on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey speaks to sailors and airmen at a town hall meeting on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Dustin W. Sisc

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who was visiting Hawaii to attend the U.S. Pacific Command change-of-command ceremony, told service members that this will be a long-standing problem that the military must address. “It’s not just about this year’s budget, it’s about an entirely different economic environment,” he said.

Coming to terms with record federal debt and deficits is not just the military’s problem, but the nation’s problem, he said. “But what we’ve done all through our history is help solve the nation’s problems, and this is no different,” the chairman said.

As the department absorbs this new fiscal reality, leaders have mapped it against the new strategy and made hard decisions about what equipment to buy, manpower cuts to make, what construction to complete, and what family programs to continue. Any changes must be done in a balanced manner, he said, or the department will be unprepared for the challenges of the future.

Yet even as the department makes changes, there are still challenges – Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, North Korea and areas not known now –and these must be addressed, he said.

A monkey wrench in the works is sequestration. This is due to take effect in January 2013 and is the law. It calls for more than $500 billion in further cuts from DOD.

“We have not done any work on trying to figure it out,” Dempsey said. “One reason is bandwidth. We just finally figured out a month ago how to absorb a $487 billion cut, and we wanted to make sure we had a strategy that made sense given that reduction.”

The department has not received guidance from the Office of Management and Budget in how to make further cuts. When that happens the department will begin work on sequestration, he said.

DOD has been able to absorb the $487 billion cutwhile still allowing the military to remain the same force and retain all the capabilities it had before. “Some have been stretched or contracted,” he said. “We lose capacity but not capability.”

All bets are off under sequestration, Dempsey said, and capabilities may have to be cut if sequestration kick in. “What we’ve said to Congress … is in the interests of national security, they really ought to find some other way than sequestration to balance this budget, and it can’t all be balanced on our backs,” Dempsey said.

This is especially important given the threats facing America. Dempsey said the risks to America are unpredictable and that non-state actors with advanced capabilities are a greater threat today than at any time in the past.

“Ten years ago, we wouldn’t have had a conversation about cyber, but I’m personally very concerned about cyber,” he said by way of example. “It is a more dangerous world. And we have to figure out how we do right by the country while not forfeiting our responsibility to protect and defend the nation.”

There are some capabilities that will be plussed up, he said. In addition to cyberdefense, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets and capabilities will grow, as will special operations capabilities. He said the Joint Chiefs are looking at placing a cyberdefense command in each combatant command.

Service members are concerned about changes to military retirement. Dempsey pledged that those serving today will be grandfathered and keep the current retirement system. Any changes will affect those enlisting or commissioned in the future.

“What we have to figure out is what would the effect be (of changes) on recruiting and retention,” he said. A commission will study the retirement systems and propose changes.

Leaders are looking at changes in pay and changes in Tricare for retirees. Health care costs have to be brought under control, he said. Ten years ago, the health care bill was $19 billion. Today it is $51 billion. “At that trajectory, we will put the volunteer force at risk,” he said. “We’ve got to get after the costs, but we’re not looking at retirement yet, and when we do, we will grandfather it.”

A service member asked the chairman what the trigger would be for an intervention in Syria. Can the United States go in unilaterally, or must it wait for an alliance to form? Dempsey answered the question more broadly. U.S. law allows the president of the United States to act unilaterally when the nation or its vital national interests are threatened, he said.

“My personal belief … is we generally get the best outcome and the most enduring outcome when we act as part of a coalition,” he said. “It gives it a greater collective understanding and it always has a better outcome.”

An international coalition must have some legal basis and it comes through consent or a U.S. Security Council resolution.

The chairman said all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have tremendous confidence in the men and women who make up the military today.

“You also need to know that as we face these financial challenges and these strategic challenges we always approach these, first and foremost, with what is the effect on you,” he said.

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Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey

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