Washington's paradoxical position on defense cuts

DoD/Sgt. Aaron Hostutle

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, brief the press at the Pentagon, April 10, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • The world is more uncertain than any time in recent memory

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  • Congress is adding harm to national security above and beyond sequestration’s consequences.

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  • Washington must say yes to the many hard choices in sequestration-level defense budgets

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This morning at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told a small group that the world is the most uncertain and combustible he’s seen in the post-World War II era.

Not only are there more threats, but the United States lacks the predictability available in the Cold War.

Not only is the world more uncertain than any time in recent memory, but this is a defense drawdown taking place while a significant amount of US forces are still engaged in conflict.

America is also shrinking the military with a defense budget that looks little like those of the past five drawdowns. In many ways, this drawdown is unlike the others, and it is being done within a defense budget that is similarly unique.

Since this is not your grandfather’s defense budget, the same stalling tactics, old political battle lines, and tired intransigence to change and reform must be beaten back.

While there are often many solid individual reasons to oppose change in the defense budget, taken collectively, Congress is adding harm to national security above and beyond sequestration’s consequences.

The constantly-falling defense budget topline is just the first problem confronting Hagel. The next is that he is being told, in effect, to cut without cutting.

Washington’s great paradox is that many politicians see little problem cutting the defense topline but oppose all the individual defense cuts once those macro decisions become micro consequences.

When Congress says the Army and Air Force cannot reduce National Guard programs or platforms under a fixed budget, for example, they force the money to come from another military priority. When fleets of aircraft or ships cannot be retired earlier than planned due to money restraints, again the funding has to come out of hide and from within the defense budget.

By saying no to the many hard choices in sequestration-level defense budgets, Congress is effectively fencing off between one-half and two-thirds of the defense budget to absorb the reductions they helped impose.

Finally, there is the reduced buying power of each individual defense dollar in today’s budget, as outlined by CSIS’ Clark Murdock.

All in, the convergence of these three trends compounds the Pentagon’s funding challenge. Defense leaders must now look beyond bridge-building on Capitol Hill.

While it is crucially important to continue educating members on the value of sustained defense investment, the Secretary of Defense should unilaterally move forward through executive action to advance the solutions that are required to meet the defense budgets the White House and Congress have approved.

It is smart for the Pentagon to continue seeking a partner in Congress over the long-term, but the demands of the moment require direct action. As the “no’s” continue to pile up on Capitol Hill, Secretary Hagel should use the relief valves available to him in law to force change now.

Maybe, just maybe, that will mobilize a wider bloc in Congress to start thinking more strategically about the outputs of defense and what the budget actually buys America instead of throwing more sand in the gears of change.

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