WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Continued deep cuts to the U.S. defense budget will hinder efforts to modernize an aging military, and a Republican plan to boost war-fighting money might provide some relief but will not fix the main problem, senior Pentagon officials said on Tuesday.
The officials told a panel in the House of Representatives that while a Republican budget proposal unveiled earlier in the day would add an additional $40 billion to the Pentagon war-funding account, the military services could not use that money for many of their most pressing needs.
“The problem with OCO (war) funding is that you can’t count on it over time for long-term investment or modernization, which is one of the problems we have,” General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said at hearing.
“We are really in a dire place as far as needing to recapitalize and modernize the Air Force,” he added, noting the service is smaller and older than at any other time in its history, with aircraft 27 years old on average.
The hearing came as the Pentagon officials pressed lawmakers to lift federal spending caps on the Defense Department and approve President Barack Obama’s request for a base budget of some $534 billion, which is about $35 billion more than permitted under current budget rules.
The top political and military leaders of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines all warned that several years of cuts in defense spending is putting the military close to the point where it cannot continue to respond to crises as it has in the past.
The spending plan proposed by Republicans calls for defense funding at the level of the budget caps but would add some $40 billion to the account for Overseas Contingency Operations, including wars, conflicts and disasters abroad. That account is not limited by budget caps.
General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said the drawback to that approach was that the services are limited in how they can spend the money.
Army Secretary John McHugh said there had been discussions about including roughly $4.2 billion in additional money in the war-funding account to keep the size of the Army above 450,000 active-duty soldiers.
The Army currently has 490,000 active-duty personnel, a number that is expected to fall to 475,000, but continued funding at levels required by federal budget caps could force it to shrink to as little as 420,000, a level McHugh called “unconscionable.”
Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Steve Orlofsky