By Mackenzie Eaglen
March 20, 2013
The sequester is set to take effect because politicians could not make a deal identifying alternative reductions elsewhere in the federal budget. This process will slash roughly $500 billion over the next nine years from the US Department of Defense (DoD) budget—on top of nearly $1 trillion in defense cuts since fiscal year 2010. This process continues the defense drawdown underway following America’s operations in the Middle East post-9/11. The difference between this drawdown and any other in recent history is that it is happening while tens of thousands of US forces are still in harm’s way in Afghanistan.
Although the scale of this defense drawdown seems similar to previous contractions, today’s defense budget looks little like those of years past. Cuts modeled on historic methods will not work. The Pentagon can no longer be content to raid modernization and readiness—its two favorite sources for savings—because these accounts, already stretched to the breaking point, will simply end up creating bigger bills that must be paid later.
Rather, the latest round of budget cuts provides an opportunity to tackle overdue and necessary changes and reforms. The sequester, combined with the numerous defense cuts of the past four years, must force a reckoning within DoD. Soon, the Pentagon will be left to either make the wrong cuts all over again and as a result undermine the president’s already weakened strategy, or tackle structural and long-term causes of budgetary growth and inefficiency.
President Barack Obama has been reducing military capability, capacity, and budgets since entering office over four years ago. In 2010 and 2011, his Pentagon leaders directed cuts of over $400 billion in plans and programs with an emphasis on weapons systems—big and small. In 2012, the White House directed another $78 billion to be cut from the Pentagon’s request in the name of loosely identified efficiencies. The current fiscal year 2013 budget reflects the first round of the military’s share of $487 billion in cuts as part of the August 2011 Budget Control Act with Congress. Together, these efforts are approaching $1 trillion in cuts before sequestration fully becomes reality.
The result is that DoD has been drawing down, scaling back war plans, absorbing ever more efficiencies, canceling weapons systems, and reducing readiness for the past four years. These trends are not likely to fade any time soon.
But Pentagon officials cannot keep raiding the shrinking pots of modernization and readiness. Not only does this cause long-term harm to the force, but the savings are also questionable and probably not even sufficient to make a long-term budgetary impact. Defense leaders must tackle problems years in the making that are often structural and do not have a quick fix. The ingredients for success will similarly require sustained leadership and follow-through. But the effort, if done right, will produce a smarter, right-sized force that has fewer layers of overhead and infrastructure. If budget trends reverse, new money can then be reinvested into deferred modernization and efforts to restore readiness.
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