Defense & National Security

Taking the meat axe to national security

Taking the meat axe to national security

On March 1 the U.S. Government will take a meat axe to the Pentagon’s budget at a very dangerous time.  These cuts were preventable had our political leaders made the hard choices but now the mandated cuts are an excuse for refusing to do their job.

By now many Americans know about the mandatory federal spending cuts known as sequestration which is a political meat axe-like solution to Washington’s impasse on cutting out-of-control federal spending.  The $1.2 trillion across-the-board cuts are split between defense and domestic programs and the 2011 Budget Control Act, the sequestration law, denies government managers the opportunity to choose “which programs to exempt or what percentage cuts to apply.”

President Barack Obama and his Democrat congressional allies created sequestration two years ago anticipating defense-hawk Republicans would compromise on raising taxes before the axe fell.   But now it appears all but certain that a compromise before the March 1st deadline is unlikely because Republicans are split, with a growing number of members who are more concerned about the deficit than national security.

Few in either party deny our government faces a budget crisis and most agree using the Pentagon as a debt reduction piggy bank is incredibly dangerous.  Our top soldier took the politicians to task last week in Congressional hearings over this issue.  U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs testified “I’m now jumping up and down.  We are on the verge of an unprecedented crisis.”

This crisis is a result of poor political management of the Pentagon’s budget which is a nightmare.  “We are facing the prolonged specter of sequestration [$500 billion additional cuts over 10 years], while under a continuing resolution, while we are just beginning to absorb $478 billion worth of cuts from 2011 and while we’re still fighting and resourcing a war,” Dempsey testified.  “That’s unprecedented.”

Further, “These would be the steepest, deepest cuts at a time I would attest is more dangerous than it’s ever been,” Dempsey testified.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) agreed with Dempsey and stated the timing of sequestration is “Orwellian” given North Korea’s third nuclear test on Feb. 12 and concerns over the stability of Iran and Egypt.

For readers new to the sequestration issue here is some useful background information.

First, even though the Pentagon is expected to suffer half of the cuts, it accounts for only 19 percent of discretionary federal spending, which has remained steady since the end of the Cold War. By comparison, when President Dwight Eisenhower left office the U.S. spent 51 cents out of every dollar on defense.   Today, 72 cents for every dollar spent by the federal government goes to domestic programs – including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

That is why Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta discourages President Obama and Congress from targeting discretionary accounts to find deficit relief.  Rather, “Pay attention to the two-thirds of the federal budget that is in large measure responsible for the size of the debt we’re dealing with.”  Panetta knows something about budgets having been the chairman of the House Budget Committee and served as President Clinton’s budget director.

Second, politics kept the Pentagon from preparing for sequestration’s impact, a point crystalized at last week’s House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hearing.   Rep. Randy Forbes (R- Va.) accused defense officials “There’s been 560 days since [sequestration] was signed into law as the law of the land … [and] just within the last couple of weeks, [is] when we’ve received the memos from you guys about the impacts that this was going to have.”

Deputy Secretary of Defence Ash Carter responded “We’re now acting” and confessed the White House was reluctant to begin taking action on sequester, fearing it would remove the impetus for Congress to act. But Obama, not defence officials, is to blame for the Pentagon’s failure to prepare for sequestration, because, as Obama said last fall during the presidential debates, sequestration “will not happen.”

Third, the impact of more cuts on our national security could be very serious. General Dempsey testified “If you want [your military] to be doing what it’s doing today, then we can’t give you another dollar.”  He continued “if you want us to do something less than that, we’re all there with you, and we’ll figure it out.”

The idea that we can do more with less in today’s high threat global environment is misguided.  And the planned automatic cuts on top of the other budget chaos without a reduction in missions threatens our global strategy which Dempsey said could leave our forces “degraded and unready” and “would be immoral to use the force unless it’s well-trained, well-led and well-equipped.”

Dempsey’s view is reflected in an estimate of sequestration’s likely impact for the services which was compiled by the HASC.  Specifically, our 285-ship Navy could decline to 230, the smallest level since 1915; and our Air Force will lose 200 more airplanes, according to General Philip Breedlove, the Air Force vice chief of staff.  Right now, according to Breedlove, the average age of our fighters is 22 years and tankers average 47 years.

Sequestration cuts are the tipping point for many major programs, according to the HASC, which include possibly terminating the Joint Strike Fighter, scratching our new strategic bomber, delaying new submarines, shrinking our aircraft carrier fleet, and terminating the littoral combat ship program which is essential to defeating anti-access threats from nations like Iran and China.

Another HASC memo entitled “The Catastrophic Impact of Sequestration” indicates America is losing its technology edge as well.  “Precisely at the moment when advanced military technology is spreading around the world, America would be forced [by sequestration] to make severe cutbacks, eroding our technological advantage,”  according to the HASC.

Congress and the administration can do a better job of managing our military drawdown and simultaneously tackle our deficit problem without relying on sequestration as a forcing tool.  And for the good of the country the two dominant political parties must find a way to rise to the occasion such as the following approach.

Change the defense strategy to accept more risk and require the Pentagon to perform fewer missions.  For example, last year President Obama announced a new defense strategy that changed our requirement to be prepared for only one regional contingency at a time, rather than two which reduced force and equipment requirements.  Further Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review called for further reductions in our nuclear arsenal which would also harvest more savings.

Many experts will disagree with Obama’s new strategy and views on nuclear arms but it is a starting point for a serious reshaping effort that should create armed forces we can afford and address our emerging threats.

Further, don’t leave the reshaping effort totally to the Pentagon because it is too close to the problem.  We need a fresh look at our emerging threats and available resources.   Nothing – not current structures, weapons systems, forces, roles, or missions – should be exempt from the knife.  But whatever is done it must be managed correctly and cuts should be made with scalpels not axes.

A non-ideological and totally objective look at what kind of armed forces we really need for the 21st Century would be a very positive outcome. This might be wishful thinking, but given the political rancor of the past few years any flicker of bipartisanship, especially on an important issue like defense, would be welcomed by the citizens.

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