The specter of sequestration

DoD photo by Sgt. Benjamin Bloker/US Air Force

Capt. John DiFebo conducts a pre-flight inspection on an F-16 Fighting Falcon during Red Flag 12-2 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., on Jan. 26, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction aka the 'Super committee' failed to agree on over a trillion dollars in budget cuts

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  • Failure has triggered looming 'sequestration' of additional $500 billion in defense dollar cuts over next decade

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  • How do you slash 10 percent in an organization as large as the military overnight?

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Last year, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also known as the “super committee,” failed to agree on over a trillion dollars in budget cuts. This failure has triggered the looming “sequestration” of an additional $500 billion in defense dollar cuts over the next 10 years, among other mechanical cuts to other parts of the budget. But you wouldn’t know that from the budget released this week by President Barack Obama. Rather, Obama’s budget numbers hue closely to those in last year’s debt ceiling deal known as the Budget Control Act, as if the super committee had never existed. This is understandable at one level. But ignoring reality will not make the most drastic cuts to the military in U.S. history go away.

"Sequestration cannot stand - and it cannot wait for the lame ducks of December." -- Mackenzie Eaglen

Sequestration was written into the budget control act as a Sword of Damocles over the super committee and Congress. Few favored it or even considered it a plausible outcome, and even today, not many appear to take it seriously. Rather, Congress, the White House and the Pentagon have embraced the hopeful but irrational belief that the necessary spending cuts or revenue increases to offset restoring the next $500 billion will happen during the expected lame duck session of Congress after the November elections. The hope appears to be that one party will have a clear mandate by then, or that a looming crisis will force rationality upon lawmakers. But the crisis is already looming. And since when do we expect clear mandates from elections, especially when the country’s politics are so closely divided?

This budget can cannot be kicked down the road. The two of us disagree about the advisability of the first round of budget cuts, as reflected in the new Obama budget. But there is widespread agreement among defense analysts that sequestration would be a nightmare. The implications of yet another round of 10 percent reductions in the military - coming on top of the 10 percent reductions resulting from the August stipulations of the Budget Control Act, yet another 8 to 10 percent that former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had put in place during the first two years of the Obama administration, and another 20 percent resulting from the gradual winding down of the nation’s wars - would be enormous and dangerous.

Simply put, the cuts already baked into the cake and the sequestration that will happen without specific action to reverse it will make it nigh on impossible for the administration to maintain what it rightly considers irreducible strategic requirements for simultaneous military presence, crisis response and warfighting capability in both the Western Pacific/East Asia region as well as the broader Persian Gulf and Middle East.

But it’s worse than that. Sequestration will cause its greatest disruptions immediately in early 2013, when mechanistic and severe cuts have to be imposed overnight. The military can adapt to reductions that it sees coming; for all the inefficiencies of the Department of Defense, it is still one of the world’s most competent planning bureaucracies. But this is a whole different kettle of fish: Because spending would have to decline for 2013 based on cuts taking effect only in January, there would be no opportunity to use natural attrition in the force to cut personnel costs, no opportunity to use the natural annual cycle of working with defense industry to restructure contracts and keep alive those weapons programs that are needed and desired, no realistic way to scale back training carefully in a way that saves money yet keeps the military ready. And all this would happen at a time when the president’s new budget anticipates we will still have 68,000 troops in harm’s way in Afghanistan.

The military’s warfighting budgets would, in theory, remain untouched, but the entire institution that supports our fighting men and women would be left teetering on the brink of peril not seen since Vietnam and the immediate post-Vietnam years. The accomplishments of the last 30 years of building the world’s finest military would be at risk based on a law cobbled together in a few weeks one Washington summer that was never intended to take effect even by its proponents.

How do you slash 10 percent in an organization as large as the military overnight? The types of choices available are all ugly. The President could choose to cut military and civilian pay by up to 15 percent immediately (military health care costs will be hard to cut, so salaries must bear the costs disproportionately); he could chop retirement payouts; or he could cut funds for major weapons systems by up to 20 percent (as legal penalties for making unexpected cuts to contracts will cost money, too). Actually he may have to do all three.

Other options include nickel-and-diming combatant commanders, cutting back their training and operating budgets by up to a quarter since these are among the only accounts that can be easily accessed when immediate saving are needed. And of course, the President will be required to make these choices at just the moment we are supposedly trying to signal Iran, North Korea, and China that the United States remains as firmly committed to our interests and allies as ever.

Some will suggest that these choices are exaggerations or worst case scenarios to make a case. But the reality is there are no secret pots of money, trust funds, or bailout resources from which the savings can otherwise be found.

Sequestration cannot stand - and it cannot wait for the lame ducks of December. It is little more than a dream to suggest that Washington can reclaim bipartisanship and a spirit of compromise in that brief period of time. Policymakers must appreciate the seriousness of this challenge, appreciate the very real threat to our national security that sequestration represents, and make the needed deal now. In this case, leadership of this great nation requires compromise - and a sense of urgency.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at AEI. Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow at Brookings.

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