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Defense budget cuts risk higher casualties: US generals

Army General Raymond Odierno (L), Admiral Jonathan Greenert (2nd L), Marine Corps General James Amos (2nd R) and Air Force General Mark Welsh (R) testify November 7, 2013
Army General Raymond Odierno (L), Admiral Jonathan Greenert (2nd L), Marine Corps General James Amos (2nd R) and Air Force General Mark Welsh (R) testify November 7, 2013

US commanders told lawmakers on Thursday that deep cuts to military spending will leave American forces ill-prepared for combat and risk higher casualties on the battlefield.

In a stern warning to Congress, the chiefs of all the armed services said another round of automatic budget cuts due to take effect next year would have a dire impact on the military, resulting in a smaller force that will begin to lose its technological edge.

“We will have fewer forces, arriving less trained, arriving later to the fight," said General James Amos, commandant of the US Marine Corps.

The lack of training and slower deployment would give adversaries more time to prepare and probably prolong any conflict, he said.

"This is a formula for more American casualties," Amos told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The bleak picture painted by the top brass came a day after Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel warned the US military would have to be smaller and sacrifice a degree of combat readiness to adapt to the budget cuts.

In a speech Wednesday, Hagel called the automatic cuts "too fast, too much, too abrupt, and too irresponsible."

The automatic, across-the-board cuts for the Pentagon and the rest of the federal government, known as sequestration, are a result of a political impasse in Congress over spending and taxes.

The military chiefs have repeatedly appealed to lawmakers to lift the automatic reductions and Thursday's testimony marked the most pessimistic assessment yet on the effect of the spending cuts.

Amos said the Marine Corps would have to shrink from a force of 202,000 to 174,000, which would mean that in a war, troops in the field would not be relieved and would stay on the ground until the conflict ended.

"We will empty the entire bench," he said.

Amos invoked the Korean War, when American forces were seen as ill-prepared for a major conflict, saying the United States was facing a similar "hazard" as it slashes military spending.

The US Army's chief of staff, General Ray Odierno, also warned that the dramatic budget cuts would mean putting troops into combat without enough training, raising the danger of more soldiers dying on the battlefield.

"In the event of a crisis, we will deploy these units at significantly lower readiness levels," the four-star general said.

"Our soldiers are adaptive and agile. Over time they may accomplish their mission, but their success will come with the greater cost of higher casualties," he said.

The budget reductions would make it "very difficult" to carry out even one "sustained major combat operation," Odierno said.

Due to the sequester cuts, the army will have to scale back its force to 420,000, after a war-time high of 570,000 troops, he said.

The army had previously planned to shrink to 490,000 in the next few years.

The downsizing represented an 18 percent overall reduction in US Army forces, including a 26 percent cut to active duty troops.

"Throughout our nation's history, the United States has drawn down military forces at the close of every war," Odierno said.

"This time, however, we are drawing down our army not only before war is over but at a time where unprecedented uncertainty remains in the international security environment," said Odierno, citing the more than 50,000 forces still in Afghanistan.

Under automatic spending reductions mandated by Congress, the Pentagon absorbed $37 billion worth of cuts in the previous fiscal year and faces the prospect of another $52 billion in additional cuts, or about ten percent of its budget.

The air force has already said it expects to cut back personnel by about 25,000 airmen and the navy's chief told lawmakers that the country's fleet of warships would be dramatically reduced over the next decade if the automatic budget reductions continue.