The Pentagon must better spell out sequestration’s national security impacts

Reuters

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks at a town hall meeting at the MARK Center in Alexandria, Virginia May 14, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • Three months into sequestration, what does it mean for America's military?

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  • Americans and their elected officials must know sequestration's impact beyond abstract warnings or more charts

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  • Keeping sequestration's impact under wraps has only guaranteed its continuation so far

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Over three months into sequestration – and nearly two years since the president signed the proposal into law – the public, and most of Washington for that matter, still has little clue what sequestration means in action for America's military. That's because the consequences of automatic and steep budget cuts have been detailed either at a level too broad or vague to worry about now when meat inspectors and air traffic controllers are threatening delays (like warnings of a readiness crisis) or else they have been pushed down to overly technical and bureaucratic-speak (similar to what the Offce of Management and Budget produced in compliance with a law demanding more transparency surrounding sequestration).

Missing is an understandable, tangible description of real world stories and impacts on service members and their families. That doesn't mean they are not feeling the impact of four years of budget cuts, but rather, few know what they are or how painful they might be.

Inside the Pentagon, there is some discussion about how reduced funding is impacting force structure, and how a smaller defense will alter the military's ability to implement the pivot to Asia. It is important for Pentagon leaders to move beyond the abstract and connect reduced funding and capacity to the inability to accomplish core military missions.

But these outcomes must also be translated into plain English and made available to the wider public and Congress. 

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is wrapping up an internal analysis to highlight negative future strategic outcomes. The process was designed to identify "breaking points" in U.S. defense strategy at varying resource levels. It was recently broadened to direct the services to outline how sequestration would be implemented next year, as well as the investment choices over the next five years if it remains in effect.  

The Pentagon would then "stress test" strategic priorities against these newly-informed budget plans to determine where cuts will force a change in strategy. While by no means exhaustive, this means officials will finally have some form of documentation that will help policymakers connect the dots between strategy, force planning and resources under shrinking budgets. 

Hagel must make the results public. Americans and their elected officials must know sequestration's impact beyond abstract warnings or more charts. They deserve to know how this law will impact America's forces and families, as well as the nation's ability to defend allies, retaliate against aggression and respond to global crises.

Airing these consequences publicly would allow politicians to decide if they truly want to delay talks to craft a "grand bargain" and alter the disproportionate impact on the U.S. military – an effort increasingly elusive in Washington, D.C.  Sharing this analysis in no uncertain terms is also the Pentagon's best chance to change or lessen the impact of sequestration. Thus far, politicians have been quick to shield the public from sequestration's worst by exempting veterans' benefits, air traffic controllers, meat inspectors and more.

The public has a right to know what its military will no longer be able to do, and the military has a responsibility to inform policymakers of the consequences of their inaction. Keeping sequestration's impact under wraps has only guaranteed its continuation so far. Perhaps Pentagon leaders will wise up and try and smarter approach erring on the side of full public disclosure.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies, where Charles Morrison is a research assistant.

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