Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III said a funding process based on short-term continuing resolutions rather than actual budgets limits decision-makers' ability to shape the force to reflect the changing security environment.
"For us, it is a fiscal disaster" that wastes billions of dollars" he said during an interview at the Pentagon. "What it does is make you spend your money based on a two- or three-year-old plan, so you can't spend the money on the plan that you need [and] what the American people need. You have to spend it on what you needed two or three years ago, depending on the last budget."
A predictable budget is essential for everyone whether they're running a household or a major corporation, he noted. "Why would it be different for the world's largest military?" he questioned.
Sequestration exacerbates this problem, not only because it requires cuts that amount to about 10 percent a year over 10 years, but particularly because it limits how they can be made, Locklear said. That's because the sequestration law, the Budget Control Act of 2011, protects some accounts from the reductions. By "fencing off all the things you might need to change," Locklear said, it "implements this cancerous type of mechanism that takes the money out of places it can."
That has a direct impact on military operations, he said.
"It takes out the things that matter to us day to day as a [combatant command]. It takes it out of readiness money. It takes it out of operating money," he explained. "Instead of 10 percent out of a big base, it takes a big chunk out of the things we need to do to do the job today to defend U.S. interests globally."
Locklear credited the military services and joint force with channeling their assets to parts of the U.S. Pacific Command area of responsibility where U.S. interests are most at risk.
"We have been able to focus our readiness and our efforts toward those places, and at least for now, to minimize the risk, particularly the risk to the homeland and the region," he said. "We just keep pushing to the pointy end of the readiness spear."
But it comes at a cost, he emphasized. "What is coming out of this is the readiness in the shaft on the back," he said. "That shaft is what provides our credibility globally" and the ability to provide ready forces when and where they are needed, whether for a humanitarian assistance and disaster response, a large-scale contingency or a full-scale war.
"That is what provides the credibility," Locklear said. "And that shaft of readiness is being rapidly eroded by the current fiscal environment we are in."
The admiral said he's particularly troubled by the long-term damage the current budgetary situation could inflict.
"It limits our ability to shape and plan and put together a military that the American people are willing to pay for," he said. "It gives us a shell of the one they did pay for and it eats the readiness from the inside of it. So you end up with a hollow military in a very short order."
Locklear said he experienced a hollow force personally when he entered the military in 1972. "We had a lot of ships. We had a lot of airplanes. We had a lot of bases," he said. "But we couldn't get them underway. They weren't manned properly. They weren't trained properly. Our retention was terrible."
He lamented that today's military could face that same fate if the situation doesn't change.
"That is where you get to if you allow readiness to be the bill payer for a prolonged period of time, and without allowing the military leadership to reshape it," he warned. "This is a debate that needs to be heard."
Locklear acknowledged that some people may accuse him and others within the Defense Department of sounding like Chicken Little saying "The sky is falling."
"I say this is all about risk," he said. "You can assume infinite risk in your military, as long as nothing happens. But history proves that something will probably happen. And our job is to tell our leadership and the American people what risks we are taking by the fiscal environment [Congress] is putting us in."