* Problem not budget levels but method of imposing cuts
* Reductions hit training for soldiers, pilot flight hours
* 'We're tapped out,' Admiral Greenert tells Senate panel
By David Alexander
WASHINGTON, Nov 7 (Reuters) - The top U.S. military officerssaid on Thursday that across-the-board cuts in defense spendinghave seriously eroded American forces' preparedness for war, andanother round of reductions in the coming months will wreak evenmore havoc.
To quickly achieve the abrupt cuts that went into force inMarch, U.S. military chiefs slashed big-unit training forsoldiers, curbed flying time for pilots and canceled regularlyscheduled maintenance for ships. A similar round of reductionsin January would lead to more of the same.
"This is the lowest readiness level I've seen within ourarmy since I've been serving for the last 37 years," General RayOdierno, the Army chief of staff, told a Senate hearing. "Ibelieve our challenge is much greater today than it has beensince I've been in the Army."
Odierno has said only two of the Army's brigade combat teamsin the United States have received the full training they wouldneed to go to war. Even those in Afghanistan have undergonetraining just to advise and assist local forces, rather thantraining for combined forces combat they might face elsewhere,he said.
The readiness drop comes as the military is grappling with ahuge cutback in defense spending following a decade of growthdue to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the Iraq war overand the Afghanistan conflict winding down, the Pentagon has beentold to pare its spending plans by $487 billion over a decade.
Congress and the White House, struggling to curb the massiveU.S. deficit, also directed the Pentagon to slash an additional$500 billion in spending over a decade unless lawmakers couldagree on alternative budget cuts and revenue increases.
No deal was reached, and the across-the-board reductionswent into effect in March for the first time.
Lawrence Korb, a defense analyst at the Center for AmericanProgress, said the issue was not Pentagon base funding levels -about $500 billion in the fiscal year that started on Oct. 1 -but the inflexible mechanism "that requires them to cut allitems in the budget, other than military personnel, by an equalamount."
The military chiefs, testifying before the Senate ArmedServices Committee, appealed for more flexibility to deal withthe reductions, saying they could cope with the $1.3 billion incuts if they had additional time.
"Sequestration reduces our capability and capacity overtime, but it doesn't break us," said General Mark Welsh, the AirForce chief of staff. "The mechanism is what breaks us."
Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations,told lawmakers the Navy tried to keep two aircraft carrierstrike groups deployed overseas and a third one in the UnitedStates fully trained and ready to respond to emergencies.
The cuts make that increasingly difficult to do. The Navyhas a carrier strike group in the Gulf and another in thewestern Pacific. The carrier intended for emergency responseshas been in the eastern Mediterranean as a result of concernsabout Syria's chemical weapons use.
"Consequently, because of fiscal limitations and thesituation we're in, we don't have another strike group trainedand ready to respond on short notice in case of a contingency,"Greenert told lawmakers. "We're tapped out."
Further across-the-board cuts will force the Navy to haltthe planned purchase of a Virginia-class submarine, a littoralcombat ship and forward staging base ship, he said. The Navyalso would have to stop plans to buy 11 tactical aircraft.
General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, saidfurther cuts in 2014 would force the Air Force to curb flyinghours to the point where within three or four months, many units"won't be able to maintain full mission readiness."
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