Defense and the Sequester | The New York Times

The arbitrary budget cuts known as the sequester will exact a toll on not only domestic programs but military spending as well. Hence the howls in Washington from the Pentagon chieftains and their ardent Congressional supporters. But the truth is that the military budget not only can be cut, but should be cut, though not with this kind of political machete and not in the way the service chiefs say they plan to wield it.

If and when the sequester comes into play on March 1, it will force cuts totaling $85 billion in discretionary government spending over the next seven months. This includes $43 billion from defense programs, or 8 percent. Over the next 10 years, defense cuts are supposed to total $500 billion.

In recent weeks, Pentagon officials and military commanders have warned of catastrophic consequences, using the most operatic terminology they can find — “dire” and “devastating” cuts will reduce America’s military machine to a “hollow force” — to dramatize their point. Troops will be insufficiently trained and equipped, and thus be at greater risk of losing their lives if deployed to a conflict zone. Two carrier strike groups won’t be deployed as planned. The Navy will be forced to shut down four air wings, and after 90 days, pilots will lose their certifications and have to be retrained. The list goes on.

Some of this is plainly hype. Both the generals and the civilians in the Pentagon know that some cuts are possible and that even under the sequester American security need not be compromised. The military has many resources, and in some respects it is over-resourced. Important budgetary accounts — military pay and benefits — are exempted from the sequester and, according to experts, the Pentagon has more flexibility than is commonly understood to weather these reductions.

In a memo to lawmakers this month, Amy Belasco, a defense specialist with the Congressional Research Service, concluded that the services would retain some discretion to shift funds to critically needed accounts. She said that some key programs — aircraft for the Air Force and tracked vehicles for the Army, for instance — would actually be financed at levels above the Pentagon’s original request in part because Congress increased some funding in the 2013 spending bill. And she suggested that commanders are planning to cut readiness about twice as much as they need to and would be better off spreading the reductions within operations and maintenance accounts.

If the Pentagon is ill prepared to deal with the sequester, it is to some extent a self-inflicted wound. Military leaders assumed the sequester would never happen and refused to mitigate its effects in advance. The Pentagon also does itself no favor by continuing to throw money at troubled weapons. As for the sequester’s impact on defense contractors, experts say the contractors have long known military spending was on the decline and built that into their projections. Production backlogs resulting from past contracts are also expected to cushion the effect.

After 9/11, the Pentagon was handed a virtual blank check and its base budget soared from $397 billion in 2001 to $557 billion in 2013. Spending is expected to decline in real terms this year, but after that it will rise slightly, even if the sequester takes effect, experts say. By some calculations, President Obama will still spend more on defense than most postwar presidents. The Pentagon needs to focus on shaping the force for new threats. Now that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are ending, it also needs to make reforms and rein in spending.

Flexible reductions would obviously be preferable to the abrupt and mandated cuts of a sequester. But the Pentagon can absorb even that with prudence and good management.

via Defense and the Sequester | The New York Times.