Among the many shortcomings of the Budget Control Act and its spawn, the “Super Committee,” is that the threat of a sequestration “nuclear option”—in which some $600 billion would be cut automatically from national security accounts if congressmen do not find savings elsewhere—diverts attention from the damage the law has done already to America’s military.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey have been quick off the mark in pointing out that sequestration would be “unacceptable” and “very high risk.” Various military service leaders have said that, if sequestration does come to pass, the country would have to “rethink” its entire military strategy. But the corollary to such criticism has been that the cuts already in law, though painful, can be “managed.” The Air Force’s second-ranking general told the House Armed Services Committee that “we will not go hollow” despite the $400 billion cut provided in the Budget Control Act.
But there’s good reason to wonder whether this is right. To begin with, the size of the current cut has grown. Last week Reuters reported that the level of defense reductions has increased to $489 billion, after the Obama administration decided to exempt veterans’ benefits from any cuts whatsoever. The White House is making a rather predictable political judgment that cutting Veterans budgets would cause them more pain than gutting defense budgets.
A better understanding of how the military is already being weakened can be found in a memo prepared for House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon. Although most news reports about the memo focused on the deep, indeed shocking, cuts in force structure that may result from sequestration, no less important was the memo’s accounting of the long-term effect on the military of current funding under the Budget Control Act.
Consider the personnel strength of the Army and Marine Corps. Even with 771,400 soldiers and Marines on active duty, both services remain stretched well beyond their limits. Based on current funding, the committee estimates that end-strength will fall to 654,000—smaller than pre-9/11 levels. Similarly, the Navy could slip to something on the order of 260 vessels—more than 50 ships below what the Navy consistently has argued it needs to carry out the country’s national security strategy. As for the Air Force, in 2000, it was flying more than 3,600 fighters; with cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act, that number may drop to less than 1,740.
The McKeon memo does not specify with equal precision the budget’s effects on future weapons programs, but there’s no reason to think such effects won’t be commensurate to the service cuts. The committee is correct to point out that every modernization program is “at risk”; the only real question is the level of risk. We are told that sequestration will create “unacceptable” risk, but because the Pentagon has yet to fully reckon the consequences of the current cuts, or even to reckon their overall size, there’s no way of knowing how much damage has already been done. So the service chiefs’ assurances that all is well should be treated with a heavy dose of skepticism.
The real problem is not the mechanism of sequestration, brutal though it may be. The fact is that the United States has been in an extended “defense drawdown” since the end of the Cold War, reaping substantial “peace dividends” throughout the Clinton years, during the Obama years, and now under the Budget Control Act. Indeed, more than $800 billion has been cut from planned spending in just the past three years. It’s time to say “enough” and to refuse not only sequestration but also a deal that avoids automatic reductions by substituting “just” a couple of hundred billion more in defense cuts. These are “savings” the nation cannot afford.