Defense & National Security

It’s like a hurricane on the way: Automatic defense cuts loom Jan. 2

It’s like a hurricane on the way: Automatic defense cuts loom Jan. 2

Predicting the fallout from defense budget sequestration is like trying to anticipate the damage as a hurricane barrels toward shore. We know it will be devastating and the long-term damage will be severe, but no one can say exactly where the havoc will be greatest or how complete the destruction will be.

With hurricanes, that uncertainty makes it hard to convince people to evacuate or make costly preparations against a danger that may or may not end up at their door. With sequestration, it makes it hard to break through the inertia and gridlock that plagues our politics—to get our leaders to act when the specific details of the automatic spending cuts under the Budget Control Act of 2011, known as sequester (including the regions and voters most affected), aren’t perfectly known.

Our business leaders’ hands are tied—putting the brakes on hiring and investment decisions. Slow hiring and limited new plant or research and development spending is a pretty poor recipe for accelerating a rather anemic recovery. We’ve already started to see layoffs as companies prepare for the worst.

More fundamentally, we know the military consequences of these cuts would be severe. From the Obama administration (“the effects of such massive spending cuts would undermine our national security”) to Congressional Republicans (cuts “pose a serious threat that would break the back of our armed forces”), there’s bipartisan agreement that America’s military cannot absorb such cuts.

The exact security impact depends, of course, on some implementation decisions that haven’t yet been made. But whatever these choices, America ends up in a very bad place. The administration’s 21st Century Defense strategy, announced with much fanfare earlier this year, for example, contains detailed prescriptions to handle tomorrow’s threats. But it gets tossed “out the window” before its first birthday under any sequestration regime, according to Secretary Leon Panetta.

Panetta’s serious predictions

Secretary Panetta also told Congress that most major modernization programs would need to be canceled or scaled back under sequestration—including decades-overdue upgrades to our aging air forces like the new stealth fighter and refueling tanker. It goes too far to say that all these programs will be mothballed, of course. But it also goes too far to believe all of them will survive.

Something has to give: earlier rounds of cuts have long since shed our military’s fat—the items on the chopping block today are muscle through and through.

Critics point out that major defense items are contracted years in advance so work won’t slam to a halt on January 2 when sequestration hits. But that doesn’t lessen the security impact of the cuts. After all, steep savings are needed every year of the sequester so some reductions will have to start immediately, most likely those for running expenses like training and maintenance. That’s why Secretary Panetta’s memo to Congress predicts such a severe, immediate readiness hit and warns of increased danger to our troops in the field.

Cuts to research and development will also take hold quickly as smaller, more tentative programs are budgeted on a shorter cycle than major acquisitions. That’s a bad sign for our ability to meet emerging threats like cyber attack or nanotechnology weapons.

We also have a vivid picture of the economic consequences of these cuts. On a macro level, we know that coupled with the other components of the so-called “fiscal cliff” they will drive America back into recession in the first half of 2013 and lead to a downgrade of our credit, further exploding the debt by driving up America’s borrowing costs.

More concretely, these cuts mean jobs. The defense portion of the sequester will destroy about 1.1 million jobs next year. Half of these are at small businesses and suppliers–the real engines of our economy and home to some of the most critical, specialized skills in America’s industrial arsenal. Lacking the global reach and financial reserves of larger “prime” contractors, these smaller firms may not be able to weather the storm of sequestration cuts—for them cuts wouldn’t mean red ink, they’d mean the loss of the lifeblood of the company.

That’s an economic and human catastrophe, but it’s also a security threat in its own right. America’s aerospace and defense workers represent a priceless reservoir of knowledge and experience–skills and capabilities that allow us to support our troops with the most advanced, powerful equipment in the world.

America’s high-tech edge means dominating the skies over Libya without losing a U.S. pilot, getting our SEALs undetected to Bin Laden’s lair and moving convoys out of the reach of IEDs by shifting cargo to unmanned aircraft. If we lose the workforce skills that make such technologies possible, we’ll pay in both economic and security terms for years.

Sequestration is the law of the land and it begins on January 2, 2013. And while we don’t know everything about a post-sequestration America, what we do should be enough to spur even the most hardened of our leaders to act.

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