WASHINGTON — American warships lie in wait across the eastern Mediterranean Sea ready to strike Syria if ordered, and Pentagon officials insist they'll find the money to fund the operation if needed.
But as the military continues to grapple with massive budget cuts, senior defense leaders said this week that it will certainly get harder and more expensive to respond quickly to similar international conflicts in the future.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, whose ships make up the bulk of the U.S. military threat against Syria, was blunt Wednesday, warning that the impending automatic, across-the-board budget cuts would make it far more difficult to give the president credible military options.
"Whatever course of action our nation decides to take on Syria, I do know this: The maritime options are flexible and they are significant and they are swift and they are sovereign," Mabus told an audience at the National Defense University. "But unless we act to address the damage of continuing resolutions and sequestration, they are options which may be limited or just not available in the future."
Already, he said, fewer ships were going to sea, fewer Navy pilots flying and fewer Marines training because of cuts that would slash more than $50 billion from the 2014 defense budget and $500 billion over 10 years.
While President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground forces into Syria, Army leaders are eyeing the debate, knowing that the budget cuts will also affect their ability to provide trained and ready forces in emergencies down the road.
Already under the gun to shrink the Army to 490,000 troops by 2017, Army leaders now are suggesting they may have to reach that level by 2015, and then slash troop levels even further — possibly to under 400,000.
While officials decline to discuss details and say no final decisions have been made, they say deeper cuts will make it more difficult to meet the requirements of the United States' current national security strategy.
As a result, military officials say they may have to concentrate equipment and training on only about eight Army combat brigades, siphoning resources from the rest of the force in order to keep those units ready to fight.
"The good news is we'll have a contingency force package available that will be trained to decisive action capability," Gen. Daniel Allyn, head of U.S. Army Forces Command, said in an interview. "But those resources come from resources that would have been available to the rest of the force."
Allyn said that while there will be lean years ahead, the Army will, at all times, have units ready to meet various missions, including a brigade serving as a global response force that can be tapped on short notice.
Other officials have said one current plan would be to keep two Army Stryker brigades, two heavy armored brigades, two light brigades and one quick reaction force at the highest levels of readiness. A brigade is about 3,500 troops, but the Army is cutting the overall number of brigades from 45 to 32 and increasing the size of each. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations publicly.
Mabus and Allyn's comments reflect worries across the services, and come on the heels of Obama's order Tuesday that the military must maintain its presence in the Mediterranean to keep pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad and to be ready to strike if needed.
That military threat, administration officials say, is largely responsible for the latest diplomatic moves, including proposals for Syria surrender its chemical weapons and have them put under international control.
The two-pronged U.S. strategy is aimed at deterring Syria's use of chemical weapons on its own people. The administration says a chemical weapons attack launched by the Assad regime in the suburbs of Damascus last month killed more than 1,400 civilians, including at least 400 children.
The Navy presence in the region currently includes four warships armed with dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles, a Navy amphibious assault ship carrying Marines and two aircraft carrier strike groups.
The breadth of the Navy operation, however, has raised persistent questions from lawmakers during the recent string of Capitol Hill hearings on the Syrian crisis.
How much will the operation cost? lawmakers asked repeatedly. And where will the Pentagon get the money?
Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, pointed to the more than 12,000 civilians at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base who were forced to take six unpaid days off this summer because of furloughs enforced by the Pentagon in order to find budget savings.
"They were told that the Department of Defense did not have enough money to pay them," he said. "And yet now the Department of Defense is telling the American public that it has enough money to take us into this conflict in Syria. How do you explain that to those people who lost wages?"
So far, Pentagon leaders simply say that if the nation calls, troops will answer.
"If something is in our national interest and we choose to act on it ... we can find the money to pay for it," Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee this week. And Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that, as time goes on, it's likely that the costs of any strike would mainly come in the 2014 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
Lawmakers note that deep budget cuts are planned for 2014 unless Congress moves to prevent them.
"We're considering strikes on Syria while the military's budget continues to be cut," Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., the House Armed Services Committee chairman, said at a hearing this week. "We cannot keep asking the military to perform dangerous mission after mission with multiple rounds of defense cuts, including sequestration, hanging over their heads."