Partisan gridlock jeopardizes U.S. military readiness
By Morris J. Amitay
WASHINGTON, D.C — The specter of the January 2, 2013 sequestration has created rare unanimity here in Washington. Just about everyone both in the defense establishment and Congress maintains it would have disastrous consequences if implemented.
This new round of budget cuts was mandated by the U.S. Budget Control Act after the failure of a super committee – the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction – to reach an agreement on a balance between taxes and spending. The Act was part of a compromise between Democrats and Republicans to permit raising the Federal debt ceiling. This translates into a $55 billion cut in fiscal year 2013 from the roughly $511 billion base defense budget, $93 billion from the war budget and $82 billion from unobligated funding.
These cuts, mandated by the sequester, would be on top of the $487 billion in budget reductions already scheduled over the next decade, because Congress could not find another $1.2 trillion in Federal savings over the same period. With the Administration’s decision to exempt military personnel from the cuts, the rest of the defense budget would be looking at an 11.2 percent reduction and could mean an estimated 89,000 job cuts at the Department of Defense and a hiring freeze. Non-defense spending would also be sequestered, but at a lower rate.
Unfortunately, given continuing partisan rancor over this issue, Congress has been unable to agree on a solution to the growing financial crisis facing our country. With the politics of this election year preventing agreement on a decisive course of action on the economy, we can expect Congress to “kick the can down the road.” When it returns to work in September, it is expected to pass a stopgap spending measure to provide federal funding for the first half of fiscal year 2013. This would permit Congress in the “lame duck” post-election session to focus on the looming automatic sequestration cuts before the January 2 deadline.
But, at some point soon, crucial decisions will have to be made as to our nation’s overall defense posture, and by definition, our leadership role in an increasingly dangerous world. In a bipartisan vote, Congress recently tasked the Obama administration to lay out precisely what these cuts to defense and domestic programs would mean. The Administration has maintained that it had not provided details because sequestration was designed to be so draconian that implementation was unthinkable. Even with many of the details missing, there is almost unanimous agreement as to the catastrophic effects of sequestration on our national security.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has described the cuts as “devastating,” with the prospect of “the smallest ground force since 1940,” “a fleet of fewer than 230 ships, the smallest level since 1915,” and the “smallest tactical fighter force in the history of the Air Force.” In this regard, it is worth noting the average age of the Air Force’s B-52 bombers is nearly 50 years. On average, American long-range bombers are 35 years old, mid-air refueling tankers are 49 years old, and fighter aircraft are 22 years old.
Panetta described the sequestration process as “unworkable” and a “disaster” that will “hollow out the force and inflict severe damage to our national defense.” The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has called sequestration “an unacceptable risk” that will “increase the likelihood of conflict in a world with a weaker America,” and an unnamed Pentagon official bluntly described sequestration as “fiscal castration.” At the same time, however, Panetta publicly acknowledged that, “There is a strategic and fiscal imperative that is driving the department to a smaller, leaner and more agile force. That is the reality.” And in defense of the Administration’s cutting defense expenditures, he averred that, “It would be irresponsible not to reduce the budget and do our role in confronting the fiscal challenges facing our country.”
Of the $1.2 trillion target for deficit reduction, almost 43 percent of it would have to come from defense accounts. These predictions come at the same time that ongoing major programs, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the next generation aircraft carrier (CVN-78), are facing rising costs and problems. Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, in testimony before a rancorous hearing at the House Armed Services Committee on August 1, spelled out further bad news. He stated that more than 2,500 programs or projects are separately identified, and all must be reduced by the same percentage, with no authority by the Department of Defense to vary the amount of the reductions.
While there is always inefficiency and waste that can be eliminated, the probable shortfalls are so large that they will not be substantially reduced through more stringent cost controls. With costs already ballooning to nearly $1 million per combat-deployed soldier per year, equipment must be replaced after two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and basic questions answered as to how to preserve our industrial base. In addition, it seems unreasonable to anticipate that our foreign friends will take on a larger share of this burden. In the 2011 Libyan civil war, our key allies had to rely upon us for precision-guided munitions, which demonstrated a lack of preparedness, as their own defense budgets have steadily declined.
On a macro scale, U.S. defense spending in the next decade is scheduled to drop to just over 2.5% of our GDP. Such drastic reductions in the defense budget would mean that strategy and planning would increasingly be shaped by economic realities rather than by the actual challenges to our national security. What would become of the White House’s “pivot” to the Pacific with our aging fleet and reductions in numbers of aircraft? Can this regional pivot be carried out when the changing circumstances and uncertainties in the Middle East necessitate maintenance of a robust force in the Gulf?
Compounding the current situation is the effect sequestration would have on the overall economy of the nation and the future viability of our defense industrial base. Some defense and aerospace companies are canceling or postponing decisions on investments, research and development, and notably, hiring. Given the current state of our economy and the depressing job numbers, drastic cutbacks on defense spending undoubtedly will have a direct bearing on the future economic health of the nation.
With the current political climate even hotter than the current weather, election year politics are trumping formulation of sound policies. The President’s threat to veto any legislative attempt to avoid the “fiscal cliff” we are approaching will put pressure on a Republican-controlled House to avoid sequestration by either raising taxes or accepting the drastic defense cuts.
While both Democrats and Republicans surely acknowledge our government’s constitutional obligation to “provide for the common defense,” there is a widening gap between perceptions as to our nation’s current priorities. This comes at a time when we have growing partisanship in Congress and an inability to reach across the aisle to find compromise on vital issues.
One can only hope that at this particular juncture that a way will be found to ensure that we can maintain a credible national defense in order to be able to provide leadership in a critical time in world affairs. Right now, it is hard to foresee anything positive happening beyond a temporary solution to forestall the sequestration into later next year. But then the fundamental question of America’s role in the world must still be resolved.
Our nation will need the wisdom and leadership to make the right decisions in an increasingly dangerous and chaotic period in history. We will have only a few short months to make fundamental choices that will affect all of us and our friends abroad for many years to come. How we deal with sequestration will be an important clue as to our future.
Amitay is vice chairman of the Jewish Insitute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). His column and others produced under JINSA auspices are sponsored on San Diego Jewish World by Waxie Sanitary Supply in memory of Morris Wax, who served on the JINSA national board.
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