WASHINGTON — The nation's military leaders told Congress Tuesday that they have raided every other pot of money they have in order to cut spending, and lawmakers must now slow the growth of personnel pay and benefits — a tricky proposition for Congress.
In a rare combined appearance on Capitol Hill, the military chiefs said their forces worry more about not having the best training and equipment. And they said that the skyrocketing personnel costs are forcing them to cut the number of troops they have, and erode their ability to maintain forces ready for combat and provide necessary, modernized equipment.
Congress is debating the proposed $496 billion defense budget this week and military pay is one of many sensitive issues within that bill.
"There's nothing left under the mattress," Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. He added that the uncertainty of the budget cuts is a greater cause of stress to the troops than what would be a longer-range plan to slow pay increases. The Pentagon has proposed a 1 percent pay hike this year, rather than a 1.8 percent increase.
Senators expressed reservations about slowing the increase in pay rates, and pressed the chiefs on other ways to trim spending. Several continued their opposition to the Pentagon's efforts to cut the A-10 aircraft, which provides close air support for combat troops.
The proposed retirement of the A-10 Thunderbolts has been a particular flash point for some senators, including those whose states house bases that are home to the aircraft.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona has been vocal in his opposition to the retirement insisting that the aircraft can better defend ground troops and that U.S. forces are more comfortable with that aircraft overhead than the F-16 jet fighters and B-1 bombers that the Pentagon has suggested could be used instead of the A-10s.
Army Gen. Ray Odierno acknowledged that soldiers believe in the A-10, which roars overhead where they can easily see and hear it -- unlike the higher-flying F-16s.
But Dempsey and others said the F-16s have been providing more close-air support on the battlefront than the A-10. Dempsey summed up the bottom line saying the Air Force will save $3.5 billion over the five-year defense plan by retiring the aging aircraft, and would have to find that money elsewhere if Congress refuses to go along with the plan.
Lawmakers and the chiefs found some potential agreement on one proposal that would allow commissaries to sell generic drugs.
Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was able to buy a bottle of generic ibuprofen for about $4.99 at the military exchange on base. But he said the commissaries on the bases can't carry the generic so they are forced to stock the more expensive name brands, which he said would have cost him $7.98. He said the commissaries are prohibited by law from carrying generics and would need Congress to change that.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, said he doesn't think the ban on generic drugs is required by law, but said committee will look into that issue.
The Pentagon has proposed reducing the subsidy for the commissaries by about $200 million, which could increase prices and cut into the 30 percent savings that officials say troops see by shopping there. Military leaders said the commissaries should be forced to find efficiencies just like the rest of the department has done.