By Jeremy Herb
The Pentagon’s decision to cancel a carrier group’s deployment to the Middle East has become a political flashpoint in the growing fight over how and what the Obama administration is cutting under sequestration.
The move has been criticized by some Republicans and The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward added fuel to the fire by describing the cancellation as “madness.”
“We now have the president going out — because of this piece of paper and this agreement, I can’t do what I need to do to protect the country,” Woodward said on MSNBC. “That’s a kind of madness that I haven’t seen in a long time.”
The Pentagon says the decision was a difficult but strategic move devoid of politics that was necessary in order to deal with the twin problems of sequestration and last year’s continuing resolution. The Pentagon delayed deployment of the USS Harry Truman as it reduced the number of aircraft carriers it has in the Gulf from two to one.
Not deploying the Truman, which saves roughly $300 million, will help the military curb its spending as it faces across-the-board cuts under sequestration as well the funding imbalances the Defense Department faces without a 2013 appropriations bill, Pentagon officials say.
Navy public affairs chief Rear Adm. John Kirby took to The Virginian-Pilot to write an op-ed defending the move, saying the delay of the Truman deployment was “process, not drama.”
“The Navy did not make this decision to make a point,” Kirby wrote. “Were it not for Secretary Panetta’s decision to delay the Truman and relieve us from having to keep two aircraft carriers in the Middle East, the Navy would have been unable to keep combat-ready forces there on anything resembling a stable schedule much past the end of this summer.”
The debate over the Truman comes as Republicans have accused the Obama administration of embellishing the impact of sequestration.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) first accused the Pentagon of adding “drama” to the debate in a letter to Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter last month, where he raised issues with the Truman cancellation and not refueling the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.
“I am concerned that these decisions are being made for the purpose of adding drama to the sequestration debate, given the continuation of other programs that are worthy of cost-cuts or even elimination,” Hunter wrote.
Carter told Hunter in his response that while it was possible for the Navy to have funded the Truman deployment, it would have harmed training and readiness even further as the Navy addresses an $8.6 billion shortfall in its operations and maintenance accounts thanks to sequestration and the 2012 continuing resolution.
“Could the money to pay for the deployment have been found somewhere else? Perhaps,” Carter wrote in the letter to Hunter obtained by The Hill. “But without the ability to transfer funds rapidly from other accounts, there aren’t many places from which we could have taken these funds without a greater cost to readiness elsewhere.”
The delay in refueling the Lincoln was a result of restrictions under last year’s continuing resolution, Carter wrote.
The Pentagon does have flexibility in some of its budget decisions, even with across-the-board cuts under sequestration. Carter told reporters Friday, for instance, that the Pentagon had ensured training for units headed to Afghanistan would not be impacted under sequester.
Hunter suggested in his letter to Carter that the carrier move was protecting the wrong priorities for the Pentagon, and said a better place to cut would have been the Navy’s biofuels program — a major policy initiative of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus that is a frequent target of congressional Republicans.
Todd Harrison, a budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said that the Navy was taking into account “a number of factors” in the carrier decision beyond just sequestration.
“It’s always hard to discern someone’s intent,” Harrison said. “A major component of the cost savings from not deploying the carrier is in military pay, since sailors will not get the extra hazardous duty, separation pay from being deployed. But military pay is not subject to sequestration, so those savings don’t help.”
Some Republicans have defended the Pentagon’s move. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the Obama administration was embellishing the cuts it was making on the non-defense side, but he did not think the military decisions made ahead of sequestration were political.
“I think a lot of this is political theater, letting guys out of jail,” Graham said Thursday. “I am convinced sequestration on the defense side has a debilitating effect on the military over time… I never had every general and every admiral tell me the same thing. I’m not going to second-guess what they’re doing.”