Flawed sequester report reinforces need to quickly reverse damaging defense cuts

DoD/Glenn Fawcett

Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey appear at a hearing of the Senate Budget Committee testifying on the President's FY 2013 budget request on Feb. 28, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • A recent sequestration report leaves the public in the dark about the consequences of these massive spending cuts.

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  • Keeping force levels steady while cutting funds for readiness, research & procurement is a recipe for a “hollow force.”

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  • Sequestration will damage the military’s ability to properly train units & succeed in combat, including in Afghanistan.

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  • Unless massive cuts to defense spending are avoided, the US military will be on an accelerated path of steep decline.

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Flawed sequester report reinforces need to quickly reverse damaging defense cuts

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The Obama administration's recent report on how it would slash nearly $500 billion more from national defense over the next decade leaves lawmakers, the military, the defense industry, and the American public largely in the dark about the consequences of these massive spending cuts.   Nevertheless, the report — which was submitted to Congress one week late — does provide some critical evidence about how the administration would implement the looming "sequestration" cuts that are scheduled to automatically start on January 2, 2013.

After months of resistance to congressional requests, the Obama administration finally was forced by a recently-passed law to detail the sequestration cuts that are required by last year's debt ceiling agreement.  Despite numerous flaws, the report reinforces the need for Congress and the commander in chief to quickly reverse these devastating reductions.

Among the significant details are the following:

•By exempting military personnel, the burden of the sequester would fall disproportionately on military operations, training and maintenance, along with weapons modernization accounts. Keeping force levels steady, while cutting funds for readiness, research, and procurement, is a recipe for creating the "hollow force" that the chiefs of the four military services have repeatedly said they are determined to avoid.

•The report also indicates that the Obama administration intends to include funds appropriated by Congress, but not yet expended by the Pentagon, in its calculation of funds subject to sequester.  In doing so, the administration's method further squeezes defense modernization — the accounts that have already taken a disproportionate hit under President Obama's first three years in office.  What this means, for example, is that although the Navy's shipbuilding budget for fiscal year (FY) 2013 is $14.9 billion, the total "sequestration baseline" for FY 2013 is $22.7 billion — a figure that includes the unobligated balances from previous years.  Because the FY 2013 baseline is larger, the percentage cut from future Navy procurement will be greater, thus putting the Navy's planned modernization of the fleet in even greater jeopardy.

•Sequestration, as laid out in the report, will also damage the military's ability to properly train units and to succeed in combat, including in Afghanistan.  Reductions to the Pentagon's operations and maintenance accounts — which correlate directly to military readiness — total $18.3 billion across the military services and the reserve components.  This impacts the daily activities of those in uniform across the force--everything from flying and steaming hours to fuel to the civilian workforce and health care.

"Moreover, sequestration will harm the readiness and responsiveness of America's defense industrial base to an ever-competitive international security environment." -Thomas Donnelly, Mackenzie Eaglen and Gary J. SchmittThe Pentagon's civilian and military leadership have gone on record as saying that the prospect of roughly $500 billion in additional defense cuts — on top of the already-approved $487 billion reduction over the next decade — would be "devastating" to the U.S. military and "very high risk" to national security.  As General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has pointedly noted, "In my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime right now, and I think sequestration would be completely oblivious to that, and counterproductive." 
Moreover, sequestration will harm the readiness and responsiveness of America's defense industrial base to an ever-competitive international security environment.  As W. James McNerney, Jr., chairman, president and chief executive officer of The Boeing Company warned in a July 2012, "implementing sequestration next January would significantly harm our military forces' readiness and the health of the U.S. defense industrial base."  In a letter to lawmakers, Robert J. Stevens, chairman and chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin Corporation, cautioned that sequestration "will disrupt our advanced manufacturing operations, erode our engineering expertise and capability and accelerate the loss of critical skills and knowledge."  Many other leaders of the defense industrial base have gone on record to echo such sentiments.
While many in both parties thought the threat of sequestration would force policymakers into compromise, it has not worked.  And although both parties and both branches of government are culpable for sequestration, the president proposed it originally and ultimately owns its outcome.  To prevent sequestration, there is no substitute for presidential leadership.
The Obama administration's report rightly observes that the sequestration provision of the Budget Control Act of 2011 remains "bad policy."  Indeed, it is.  But as even the administration's inadequate response to the Sequestration Transparency Act of 2012 makes clear, unless sequestration's massive cuts to defense spending are avoided, the U.S. military will be put on an accelerated path of steep decline — and, with it, America's ability to lead globally.

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About the Author




Gary J.


  • Mackenzie Eaglen has worked on defense issues in the U.S. Congress, both House and Senate, and at the Pentagon in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and on the Joint Staff. She specializes in defense strategy, budget, military readiness and the defense industrial base. In 2010, Ms. Eaglen served as a staff member of the congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission established to assess the Pentagon's major defense strategy. A prolific writer on defense related issues, she has also testified before Congress.


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