Sequestration-lite is slowly undermining US forces

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Article Highlights

  • No federal entity has been hit harder by sequestration than the U.S. military

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  • US military strength is at risk today as never before

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  • The decline in U.S. military power will lower the bar for aggression overseas

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Sequestration is a term only Washington could love. What it translates into are automatic budget cuts because politicians could not agree on how to make more sensible and bipartisan ones.

No federal entity has been hit harder by sequestration than the U.S. military. While Congress and the president have taken steps to soften these steep spending reductions, the relief has been modest while the defense budget continues its contraction.

Defense spending cuts have led to a fighting force that is smaller, less capable and less ready. But there is a growing gap between what the country is willing to pay for with its military and the insatiable strategic appetite of policymakers to employ the military in pursuit of national objectives. The consequence of this growing supply-demand imbalance for U.S. military capabilities, presence and personnel is rising risk, which is borne uniquely by those in uniform.

Examples abound in a recent Pentagon report on sequestration's deadly consequences. Unless Congress acts to reverse the sequester, the Pentagon will be forced to cut an entire squadron of F-35 aircraft, eliminate its entire fleet of KC-10 tankers, divest its entire Global Hawk Block 40 fleet of unmanned reconnaissance drones, cut seven surface combatants by 2019, reduce procurement of eight ships by 2019, and reduce service readiness funding by $16 billion over the next five years, among countless other consequences.

These cuts and the associated risks have been accompanied by stern warnings from the nation's senior military and civilian leaders who have repeatedly cautioned that sequestration-level budgets would break the military's ability to fulfill the national defense strategy. More worrisome is that even budget reductions of a lesser magnitude may still undermine the ability of some of the services to conduct even one major operation should it be required. As former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta argued in the summer of 2011, sequestration "is an outcome that would be completely unacceptable to me as secretary of defense, to the president and, I believe, to our nation's leaders. Most importantly, it would be unacceptable to the American people."

Yet despite this and other dire warnings, the proverbial sky has not yet fallen three budget years into sequestration-lite. Were Secretary Panetta and other Pentagon leaders wrong when they predicted catastrophe?

The answer is not easy because the effects are happening all over but in small pieces, and the larger trend is occurring seemingly in slow motion. What is clear, however, is that the consequences of sequestration are mounting, and they are having a deleterious effect on America's military. Eventually these consequences will pile up enough to alarm everyone. By then, it will be much more expensive to reverse the damage and some of it will reverberate for years if not decades into the future. Most disheartening of all, it is all avoidable, but partisan politics keeps a deal elusive.

Budgetary Confusion

Perhaps nothing reflects the convoluted impact of sequestration more appropriately than the Pentagon's 2015 budget request. While Congress considers and votes on funding only for 2015, the request also contains a rough spending plan covering five years looking out to 2019.

Normally, the Pentagon proposes a budget number for a given year, which Congress then either approves, cuts, or increases in its annual defense appropriations bill. In 2015, the story was a little different because the Pentagon already had its budget target from Congress in the form of adjusted post-sequestration "caps" agreed to in the 2013 Ryan-Murray Bipartisan Budget Act. This agreement provided limited relief from the full weight of sequestration's axe in 2014 and 2015, but did nothing to adjust future defense spending.

Not wanting to throw cold water on the tenuous near-term budgetary compromise reached by Congress, the Pentagon budgeted to the Ryan-Murray number in 2015 while adding about $115 billion above sequestration levels into its longer plan. This $115 billion in proposed spending above the sequestration-level caps provided the Pentagon with an opportunity to explain the consequences of sequestration relative to its budget plan.

Unfortunately, this was much easier said than done. According to Defense News, the decision to add $115 billion into the budget above sequestration-levels of spending was reached very late in the decision cycle. Consequently, the Pentagon was not able to budget for everything it wanted even within those higher levels of spending.

The two most prominent examples pertain to the size of the Navy's aircraft carrier fleet and the number of active duty Army soldiers. As Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel outlined in February, "The spending levels proposed under the president's budget plan would also enable the Navy to maintain 11 carrier strike groups." Secretary Hagel went on to describe how sequestration-level budgets would force the Army to further shrink its active duty force to 420,000—down from its goal of 440,000 to 450,000 soldiers. However, when the 2015 budget was released a week later, it became apparent that the $115 billion that separated the president's defense budget from the sequestration-level caps did not fund the higher Army end strength levels or the extra carrier needed to maintain the Navy's fleet at eleven, despite the Secretary's assurances.

This problem persists today. When the Pentagon released a detailed breakdown of sequestration consequences relative to the five-year budget plan earlier this spring, it clearly showed that the higher Army force levels and the 11th carrier are not supported in the budget. However, the report does note that "if Congress acts to support the out year Pentagon Budget '15 topline, the department would maintain a force of 11 carriers," with a similar note for the higher Army end strength levels. This suggests that if Congress indicates it will provide additional funding as the president has requested in the coming years, Pentagon leaders will alter the current plans. What officials have yet to make clear is there are items currently in the budget that would have to be sacrificed after factoring in the costs of the carrier and additional personnel; money will have to be moved from program to program.

This confusion might seem like a minor point, but it is a major problem for the military. Since the Defense Department cannot clearly articulate what is in and what is out of its own budget request, it is clouding the picture of what continued sequestration would mean and what increased defense spending might afford the nation if reversed.

And if DoD is confused, much more so is Congress. Members, understandably, take away the impression that sequestration is tough but doable for the U.S. military. But budget chaos makes it prohibitively difficult for lawmakers to understand what is at stake and how they can support a strong national defense.

Underfunding Hurts America's Military

This military strength is at risk today as never before. Each service has been facing distinct and compounding readiness challenges, many of which began long before sequestration and would persist for years even if robust funding were restored tomorrow. After years of inadequate budgets, tangible consequences are already emerging for America's men and women in uniform.

According to the Army's Vice Chief of Staff, the Army's focus on training for counterinsurgency operations created a gap in training for other types of conflict. As he has testified, from 2004-2011, 5,500 company commanders, 2,700 field grade officers, and 1,000 battalion commanders were impacted by Combat Training Center rotations that focused on counterinsurgency at the expense of other forms of conflict. One unit, the 4th Infantry Division's 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, participated in a National Training Center exercise in 2013 for direct action and unified land operations—its first since 2002. According to the Vice Chief, "Many tank platoon sergeants had never performed as a member of a tank crew, some company commanders had never maneuvered their units as a part of a combined arms team, and Field Grade officers often had no experience in combined arms maneuver." What this means, he continued, is, "in the event of a crisis, we'll deploy these units at a significantly lower readiness level. Our soldiers are adaptive and agile, and over time, they will accomplish their mission. But their success will come with a greater cost of higher casualties."

Navy leaders have been warning for years that increased deployments, longer deployment schedules, reduced and narrowed training, rescheduled and de-scoped depot maintenance periods and limited opportunities for unit level training and maintenance routinely exceeded guidelines. In fact, from 2000-2008, while the Navy's fleet size shrunk by 10 percent, its ship-underway days increased by 15 percent. This shrinking fleet and growing demand exacted a toll on the force. One report found that almost one-quarter of the Navy's inspected ships failed their annual review in 2011 and half of its deployable aircraft were not combat-ready.

Similarly, the Air Force is struggling to meet operational demands with a geriatric force at increasing expense. As former service Secretary Michael Donley has testified, between 9/11 and 2012, the Air Force flew more than 455,000 sorties in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn, as well as more than 350,000 sorties in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. In 2011, the service averaged about 400 sorties per day. This breakneck tempo is taxing an increasingly old force. According to Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Larry Spencer, the service's tankers are now on average 52 years old, many of its bombers are more than 30 years old, and its fourth generation fighters average 25 years old. In the words of the Vice Chief, "We are now nearing a point where it costs more to sustain our aircraft than it does to replace them."

On top of the service's brutal tempo of operations and the age of its fleet, the Vice Chief's recent statement to Congress chronicled how the service's full-spectrum readiness began declining well before sequestration, which has only worsened the problem. According to General Spencer, "This is not going to be a quick fix, and it will take us years to recover. If we are not able to train for scenarios across the full range of military operations, we may not get there in time and it may take the joint team longer to win."

The Marine Corps is facing similar problems. In a recent statement to Congress, Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos outlined the mounting readiness challenges facing his Marines: more than 60 percent of non-deployed units are experiencing degraded readiness in their ability to execute core missions; roughly 65 percent of non-deployed units have equipment shortfalls and 35 percent are experiencing personnel shortfalls due to the transfers of Marines and equipment to units about to deploy. Furthermore, the Corps is facing rising challenges due to the "significantly degraded" readiness of its ground equipment, which has aged more rapidly than normal given its extensive employment overseas. All of this is raising risks for the Corps. As the Commandant has warned, "The primary concern with out-of-balance readiness of our non-deployed operating forces is an increased risk in the timely response to unexpected crises or large-scale contingencies."

Across the board, America's senior military leaders have been clear: risk arising from defense cuts is rapidly accumulating, and would persist even in the absence of sequestration—which is only making ongoing problems that much worse.

Prospects Remain Unclear

As Congress considers the pending defense bills, there is still a lack of clarity on funding levels, predictability, and stability for the remainder of this President's term and the years left under the Budget Control Act. Yet, even if the Pentagon receives some relief this coming year, there is still the very real question of what will happen in 2016 and beyond.

To date, Congress has relied on piecemeal solutions that have reduced sequestration on a year-by-year basis. This approach has alleviated some near-term pain, but at the cost of making sequestration appear more palatable. Because it was designed as a blunt "forcing mechanism," relying on the promise of budgetary pain to force tough compromise, reducing the amount of pain wrought by sequestration has also undermined politicians' incentives to come to a larger agreement on entitlements and taxes.

This is troubling because the reality is that accumulating consequences of defense cuts and rising risk as a result of uncertainty really are threatening national security. With or without sequestration, General Martin Dempsey Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned that the prospect of interstate conflict is rising, American military equipment is becoming more vulnerable, instability caused by violent extremism will persist, and the American homeland will not be a sanctuary against foreign attack. This is hardly a comforting outlook.

Furthermore, General Dempsey has warned that the smaller military proposed in the 2015 budget—even if sequestration were wiped off the books—will exacerbate some of these dangerous trends. According to Chairman Dempsey,

The smaller and less capable military outlined in the QDR makes meeting [strategic] obligations more difficult. Most of our platforms and equipment will be older, and our advantages in some domains will have eroded. Our loss of depth across the force could reduce our ability to intimidate opponents from escalating conflict. Nations and non-state actors who have become accustomed to our presence could begin to act differently, often in harmful ways.

In other words, the decline in U.S. military power will lower—and possibly already is lowering—the bar for aggression overseas and increasing the possibility of conflict. The risk remains that more Americans will be asked to sacrifice their lives to protect vital national interests.

This is not a happy path, but it is also not inevitable. The president and Congress can act to reverse these possible outcomes and support a more peaceful and prosperous future. Yet widespread confusion over the consequences of defense cuts and resulting budgets is a major impediment to moving in the right direction. The Pentagon needs to continue elaborating upon the specific consequences of reduced resources and offer a better path forward for policymakers to support. Washington's leaders must understand that it is cheaper to maintain American military strength than to rebuild it.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.

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