By Charles Knight, Senior fellow, Project on Defense Alternatives
Congressional leaders, the Pentagon, and a few senior Republican hawks in the Senate are poised to put President Obama in a classic squeeze. The squeeze play in baseball is when the hitter attempts a sacrifice bunt that allows a runner on third base an opportunity to score.
This squeeze is a little different. There is a sacrifice, but it is meant to be temporary, allowing that player to score later while the whole team wins an even bigger prize.
What’s the game of this group of Washington players?
As reported by Bloomberg, Republican leaders in Congress may let the sequester of discretionary accounts, including the Pentagon’s, go into effect on March 1:
Last year, Boehner, of Ohio, warned that the cuts would ‘hollow our military,’ and Ryan, of Wisconsin, said they would ‘undercut’ critical government operations. Now, Boehner said he has support in his conference for the sequester, and Ryan said last weekend on NBC that it ‘is going to happen.’
Their main objective is to use the pain of sequester to force Democrats into accepting reductions in social and health security accounts. To achieve this end they are willing to let the Pentagon take a temporary hit and they are confident it will be temporary.
The Pentagon is “preparing” for this eventuality in ways that are fundamentally unsustainable. The Pentagon is planning furloughs, suspending nonessential travel, imposing hiring freezes, reducing depot maintenance activity, cutting base operating budgets, and the like.
What the Pentagon is not doing is making significant adjustments to their force posture which could maintain strong security at lower levels of spending. And they show no inclination to take the lead on such adjustments. The Pentagon’s game is to keep all cuts reversible; indeed, make re-funding these positions and activities essential. They still expect to get back on a growth path later in the decade.
Finally, Senators McCain and Graham continue their persistent refrain warning of impending “hollowing,” even “destruction,” of the armed forces if the Pentagon’s budget is cut. McCain has been playing the “hollow military” card since the early 1990s, often with considerable success.
President Obama needs to break out of this squeeze by announcing some Pentagon posture changes and budget cuts for FY14. As former Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget Gordon Adams has written, “We will go deeper. We have always gone deeper after a war.”
The budget reduction for the coming fiscal year should be on the order of $25 billion and the posture adjustments should include:
- Bringing several Army brigades home from Europe together with accelerated end strength reductions for the Army and Marine Corps,
- planning to reduce strategic nuclear forces,
- Demobilizing a wing of fighter jets from the active component of the Air Force, and
- Reducing the size and frequency of Navy forward patrols and scaling back new ship buying accordingly.
Obama should also announce that his new Secretary of Defense will be charged with coordinating a careful and orderly drawdown of the forces on the order of 15 to 20 percent over the remainder of the decade.
The squeeze play that is now underway will force a disruptive and self-limiting drawdown at the Pentagon that plays nicely to the “hollowing” narrative of hawks like McCain. It will be easy to use the “dire circumstances” at the Pentagon to make President Obama appear to be an ineffective and irresponsible Commander in Chief.
To avoid this Obama must move now to set forth the vision and reasoning for a decisive drawdown which will sustain a top notch military with a lighter and smaller global footprint. That is the best strategy for America… and the best play for the White House.