The top US military official said that Pentagon officials were putting in their efforts to plan for a potential default but cautioned that the circumstances were extraordinary.
“So I honestly can’t answer that question,” he told troops at Kandahar air base, as several expressed anxiety over budget wrangling in Washington.
Potentially suspending pay to US forces waging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is an extremely sensitive subject in the United States and Mullen acknowledged that many troops lived paycheck to paycheck.
“So if paychecks were to stop, it would have a devastating impact,” Mullen said, answering questions from troops.
“I’d like to give you a better answer than that right now, I just honestly don’t know,” he said.
The United States has warned that it will run out of money to pay all of its bills after August 2 without a deal from Congress to raise a $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. Where US troops fall in priority for payment in a default has not been made clear.
With $172 billion of revenue between August 3 and August 31, the US Treasury could fully fund Social Security payments, Medicare and Medicaid, interest on the debt, defence vendor payments and unemployment insurance, found a study by the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center.
Mullen said he believed that troops would be paid eventually, and added that there was an expectation US forces, seen as essential to national security, would need to show up for work.
“I have confidence that at some point in time whatever compensation you were owed you will be given,” he said.
“But I don’t know mechanically exactly how that would happen. And it is a huge concern.”
While a group of congressmen pushed forward a bill this week to ensure that the active military servicemen still get paid in the case of default, there’s no firm plan yet.
The White House hasn’t made any assurances and neither has the Treasury Department.