BRUSSELS The U.S. Army's chief of staff said on Wednesday the government shutdown was significantly harming the army's day-to-day operations and he urged a rapid resolution to the funding row.
General Ray Odierno said the shutdown "impacts significantly day-to-day operations", forcing the military to cut training and travel and to focus on essential tasks.
"The longer it goes on, the worse it gets. Every day that goes by, we are losing manpower, we are losing capability, so in my mind it is important we get this resolved," he told Reuters in a telephone interview from Germany, where he was attending a conference.
A stand-off between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans has pushed hundreds of thousands of federal employees into unpaid leave.
Odierno said military personnel will continue to be paid and soldiers on operations in places like Afghanistan will not be affected, but non-essential civilian employees will not be paid.
He said he would be cutting short his trip to Europe and travelling back to the United States, partly because the shutdown barred travel and also to make sure the army could carry out its missions despite the financial situation.
The U.S. military is already feeling the pain from defense spending cuts which force the Pentagon to cut spending by nearly $500 billion over 10 years, on top of $487 billion in cuts already planned for the same time.
The additional cuts, known as sequestration, were initially meant to force the White House and Congress to find other ways to cut the budget. But policymakers failed to reach a deal on cutting the deficit and so the cuts went ahead.
Odierno said the cuts required by the sequester were too deep and would leave the United States with a military that was too small, while indiscriminate reductions were difficult to execute and would leave the U.S. Army unbalanced.
"Because it is done with a meat axe ... it doesn't allow us to plan properly and get the most out of the money we are given," he said.
"We are having to take significant cuts in readiness and modernization (programs) probably for the next two or three years which puts us out of balance," he said.
After growing for a decade because of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army is reducing its force to 490,000 soldiers from a high of 570,000.
If sequestration continued, the Army would have to shrink to "well below" 490,000, Odierno said.
He said budget cuts could potentially force the United States to cut its presence and bases in Europe below what he considered necessary.
"We have been very aggressive in setting our posture here in Europe and we have it about where we want it, but now we are going to have to re-review it to decide 'Can we sustain it?' if we continue to get these deep budget cuts," he said.
Most Western European countries have also been cutting defense spending in response to the financial crisis, causing growing concern among U.S. officials who point to a widening gulf between U.S. and European military capabilities.
Odierno, attending the Conference of European Armies with chiefs from 35 other armies at Wiesbaden, Germany, urged European countries to continue to invest in their militaries, saying China and Russia were increasing defense spending.
(Editing by Jon Boyle and Angus MacSwan)