By: Philip Ewing
The military didn’t lurch to a stop on Friday, but the onset of sequestration has already begun to gum up the works in the Pentagon, Defense officials warned — threatening popular programs and national security readiness around the world.
The Navy is standing down four of its air wings, with the first set to go idle next month, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said. The service has already begun canceling performances by its popular Blue Angels flight demonstration team. Ditto for the Air Force’s Thunderbirds.
“This progressively builds over coming months and constitutes as serious problem, particularly in the readiness accounts,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
The Army will “curtail” training for all units except those bound for Afghanistan, meaning a readiness hit for about 80 percent of the active force. And the Pentagon will soon give notices to thousands of employees expected to be furloughed in early April.
So even though sequestration didn’t fall like the guillotine to which it was sometimes likened, its effects will become clear all too soon, Carter warned.
“Right at midnight tonight, and then building through the days, weeks and months into the future, we’ll begin curbing training,” Carter said Friday afternoon. “All of this will be abundantly obvious, starting tomorrow and then building through the year. This will not be subtle.”
The mechanism of U.S. military is enormous, with a complicated support network behind every soldier serving in Afghanistan, to take one example. The soldier needs bullets, food, armor, vehicles and fuel; he needs a soldier training now to take his place next year; he needs care and support when he gets home after his tour; he needs to know his family at home is safe, clothed, fed and educated.
Sequestration — and March’s other military budget crisis, over the temporary continuing resolution that funds the government — damages this underlying clockwork even as it exempts the budget accounts that fund the war and the U.S. nuclear mission. All of it risks what the Joint Chiefs of Staff have called a “readiness crisis” later this year.
Carter gave two other examples: Canceling the scheduled maintenance for the Navy’s warships this year disrupts a shipyard’s precisely laid schedules, which are set out “heel to toe,” years in advance. So even though a destroyer might be able to operate as well Saturday as it did on Thursday, if the ship can’t get its overhaul next month, not could it be taken offline, but so could the one after it, and so on. At very least, all the delays increase the overall costs.
Carter’s second example was the need for the Air Force to cut back on flying hours. Aviators — especially combat pilots — need to spend at least a minimum amount of time in the air to keep qualified, but if they’re flying less and less, they might wind up grounded altogether, he warned.
And although the military services have some flexibility to manage their budgets even under sequestration, Carter acknowledged, they’re using it to protect their operations in Afghanistan, and in the case of the Navy and Air Force, their share of the U.S. strategic mission — the Navy’s nuclear ballistic missile submarines and the Air Force’s nuclear bombers and ballistic missiles.
“What remains, even in those … accounts — we’re doing everything we possibly can to protect national security and minimize the damage, but even after you do that, you still don’t have enough money left to do the training that underlies readiness, that’s why the readiness crisis as the chiefs refer is very real,” he said. “It builds as the year goes along.”
In another example, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has warned that if the service can’t fully train units now that are slated to go to Afghanistan later, it might mean the Army must involuntarily keep units in combat longer than they were scheduled, which takes a corrosive toll.
Congress could give the Pentagon more flexibility to manage its budgets, but that would take compromise that has so far not been forthcoming and involves political risks both for lawmakers and the Defense Department.
Wonks have spent months kicking around the idea of a better-managed sequestration, and Senate Republicans even floated one this week as one of the two sequestration-avoidance bills that died Thursday in failed procedural votes. Carter told lawmakers last month that it was too late for discretion to do much good, but if sequestration stays in effect for long, that tune may change, experts said Friday.
“This is something that will gradually build over time,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, in a conference call with reporters.
Until then, the executive branch is resisting broader authority to implement the cuts because it puts it in the uncomfortable position of picking winners and losers, Harrison said. There are political reasons as well. In many ways, sequestration is like the Base Realignment And Closure Commission process in that there are no fingerprints on unpopular choices, said Gordon Adams, who oversaw national security budgets at the White House Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration.
“Lawmakers and DoD can point and say, ‘Sequestration made me do it,’” Adams said. “It gets them out of making choices that make people angry.”
Meanwhile, many in Congress are hesitant about giving the executive branch more flexibility because it effectively outsources congressional power to appropriate funding, Adams said.
Plus, if the military gets greater flexibility to distribute the cuts and it can reduce its budget without harming military capability, that undermines the political case the Joint Chiefs have been making that they can’t cut another dollar, said Larry Korb, a former assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration who is now with the Center for American Progress.
All three defense analysts agreed: They do not know how the next few weeks are going to play out.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a budget season this unpredictable,” Adams said. “It’s so positively theatrical it’s unbelievable.”
Kate Brannen contributed to this report.