Gen. William M. Fraser III, the chief of U.S. Transportation Command, based at Scott Air Force Base, warned Thursday night that the federal budget sequester -- the $85 billion in automatic across-the-board budget cuts -- is already starting to hurt military readiness one week after it began.
During congressional testimony earlier in the week, Fraser said he told lawmakers that his command today possesses the proper level of readiness.
But the four-star general cautioned that the sequester -- which is taking a nearly $47 billion bite out of the nation's defense budget over the next seven months -- could cause TRANSCOM's readiness level to atrophy over time.
"And as that atrophies over time then, when that next call comes, are we going to be able to respond?" Fraser told an audience for an event at the Four Seasons Hotel sponsored by the World Affairs Council and the St. Louis Regional Chamber.
Entitled "A Strategic Outlook for the U.S. Military," Fraser's speech provided his audience with an update on a wide range of topics -- from the success of the draw-down of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, to improving relations with Pakistan, to international efforts to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa.
But the focus of Fraser's speech centered on the impact that steep and abrupt budget cuts are having on TRANSCOM and the rest of the U.S. military.
"Because if you're taking the flight hours away from the crews and they're down to the basic levels, and they don't have the same training levels as they have nowadays, then what are we going to do?" Fraser said. "It takes time to build that back up."
In addition, Fraser warned that the "cookie cutter" approach caused by sequestration law "is going to break a lot of programs, and even some of the acquisition programs."
The sequester is a product of the debt ceiling negotiations in August 2011 between President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders in the Senate and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The sequester, which took effect March 1, is set to cause the layoffs and furloughs of more than 700,000 civilian Defense Department employees by mid-April.
At least 4,500 Scott Air Force Base civilian employees have been notified they will receive a weekly unpaid day of vacation for the 22 weeks between April and late September unless President Obama and the U.S. Congress can forge a deal.
Fraser expressed hope the U.S. Congress will pass a short-term fix to the sequester, a compromise will give the service chiefs greater flexibility in deciding which programs to cut and which ones to protect.
"Because there are other areas that generate less risk, if you please," he said. "And therefore they would make those types of decisions in order to preserve readiness and to preserve other things that are more important."
As for the draw-down in Afghanistan, government troops there are taking increasing levels of responsibility for their own security, Fraser said.
"They are taking the brunt of the fight to the bad guys," Fraser said, noting that so far this year, four American troops have died in combat, versus 189 Afghan military.
"The tide is turning," he said.