By Michael Cohen
On 1 March, the most dreaded word in Washington will become a fiscal reality – sequestration. Just those four syllables are enough to send chills up the spine. The across-the-board spending cuts will impact a host of federal agencies, but especially the Defense Department. It will become the law of the land, plunging the nation into a bleak, dystopian future in which (possibly) the rivers will boil over, locusts will consume the nation’s agricultural bounty, and cats will sleep with dogs. America will almost overnight be reduced to a second-rate power, quickly to be overrun by hordes of foreign insurgents empowered by America’s retreat from the global stage.
Obviously, I am exaggerating. But only sort of. If you listen to American’s military leaders talk about the impact of sequestration, you might be convinced that, in fact, the sky is falling.
According to the nation’s highest-ranking soldier, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey (pdf), sequestration will “put the nation at greater risk of coercion”. This is actually tame when compared to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s prediction that sequestration would “invite aggression”. His deputy, Ashton Carter calls sequestration and the possibility of a year-long continuing resolution to fund military operation as “twin evils” (pdf). In the words of Chuck Hagel, the man likely to replace Panetta, the spending reductions would “devastate” the military.
The uniformed military is no less ominous in its warnings. Admiral Jonathan Greenert, head of US Naval Operations, says the cuts will “dramatically reduce: (pdf) our overseas presence; our ability to respond to crises; our efforts to counter terrorism and illicit trafficking” and “may irreversibly damage the military industrial base”. General James Amos, Commandant of the Marin Corps goes even further (pdf), in warning that a failure to properly resource the military will put the “continued prosperity and security interests” of the United States at risk.
This is threat-mongering that gives threat-mongering a bad name. While one can reasonably argue that sequestration is a brain-dead method of cutting Pentagon spending (it is) the rhetoric of the Joint Chiefs is so over the top it should give every American pause – not only in its confidence about the supposed adaptability of our armed forces, but also in the unseemly public relations game being played here.
In reality, the cuts to the Pentagon budget, while significant, would return the United States to budget levels that it last reached in…fiscal year 2007. That was a year in which the US was fighting a war with more than 100,000 troops in Iraq and also fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Today, there are no US troops in Iraq, and the US war in Afghanistan is quickly winding down. Was the US at such grievous risk then, too?
Moreover, the reduced military budget, which will be a bit below $500bn would as Chuck Spinney points out in Time be at the same level it was during the Truman Administration – a period when the US faced off against an actual great power adversary, the Soviet Union and had 300,000 US troops deployed on the Korean Peninsula fighting off the Chinese.
The notion that the US military cannot protect the nation with a budget of half a trillion dollars seems beyond far-fetched. What takes it into the land of the surreal is that today the US faces a very different global environment than it faced 60 years ago. In fact, as I’ve argued before, the world today is safer than it has ever been. Wars and, in particular, inter-state conflicts have declined dramatically. The United States faces no contender to the role of global hegemon; no military competitor and no great power enemy. The closest thing the US has to a foreign rival would be a China, and currently the US spends more on defense research and development than Beijing spends on its entire military.
It is striking that even though Martin Dempsey claims that the danger of sequestration to national defense on a scale of 1 to 10 is a 10, he was unable in recent congressional testimony to identify a single country that could exercise “coercion” against America after 1 March. That baton was apparently handed to Army Chief of Staff, Ray Odierno who claimed, “the greatest threat” (greatest!) to our national security “is the fiscal uncertainty resulting from the lack of predictability in the budget cycle.”
The military has long bragged about its ability to respond to whatever challenge it is given by its civilian leaders. Can-doism is the espirit de corps of our nation’s protectors, but by Odierno’s argument, budget uncertainty is apparently the Kryptonite to our military Supermen.If the US military can’t reduce its budget right now, when the US is ending its overseas wars and when the country faces no serious security threat, then the Pentagon budget can never be cut.
What makes the Pentagon’s argument so doubly frustrating (and borderline malicious) is that to avoid having to make tough choices about defense priorities, the Joint Chiefs is instead making dramatic budget cuts intended to scare Congress. These include curtailing training exercises for 78% of the Army(pdf) as well as a host of other cutbacks; a nearly 20% drop in flying hours for Air Force pilots (pdf); widespread furloughs of civilian workers; and the Navy has announced plans to postpone the deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Harry Truman to the Persian Gulf and suspended repairs to other ships.
However, as a recent Congressional Research Service report points out(pdf), the military is going above and beyond in proposing a 20% cut to its operation and maintenance budgets even though a smaller cut would be possible if the Pentagon ax was directed elsewhere. In fact, according to Winslow T. Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information, and a frequent critic of military spending, even after the sequester:
“Air Force funding for aircraft will increase by $829m; Navy shipbuilding will have $155m more than requested for 2013 waiting to be spent, and the weapons and tracked combat vehicles account in the Army budget will have $404m too much.”
It’s a bit hard to square those facts with Dempsey’s recent assertion that “it would be immoral to use the force unless it’s well-trained, well-led and well-equipped.” In fact, a military intent on avoiding cuts to the operations and maintenance and the readiness of its troops could look elsewhere – places like the $32bn it is planning to spend on nearly 2,000 new ground combat vehicles, the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship or even the bloated 4,000 man staff in the Joint Chiefs of Staff office.
If you’re not quite out of gall yet, consider one last point: the potential for sequestration has been evident since the summer of 2011. And how did the military prepare for this doomsday scenario? Well, they didn’t.
As was noted in recent congressional hearings, it was only in December that the Defense Department began assembling a plan for dealing with sequestration. ”
We made the decision in the Department of Defense that we agreed with that we would wait on planning. Frankly, that was because we never thought it was going to be executed,” said Odierno. This from an institution that develops powerpoint presentations for taking a trip to the bathroom.
While sequestration is a terrible way to cut the military budget or reduce the deficit, the fact is, there is no reason why the military cannot survive on a budget of $500bn. Considering the changing nature of the global environment, it’s a number that Pentagon planners should have to get used to. And Defense Department planners can look to a host of plans for good ideas (pdf) in how they can reduce spending and still maintain America’s defense edge.
But to do so would require making hard decisions about the force and the types of conflicts the United States is likely to face the future. That is a decision that cannot be made by the military alone, but instead by the White House and Congress. The military’s childish threat-mongering identifies a far bigger problem, a military leadership actively resistant to change and reform.