When they agreed to President Obama’s 2011 budget proposal that is responsible for the current sequester, Republicans expected that the nation’s concern and respect for the military would help to prevent the cuts in defense spending that would occur if agreement to reduce the deficit were not reached. They were wrong. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Whatever its other effects, which may well be minor, the sequester arrives amidst increasing Chinese aggressiveness toward our allies in the Pacific, a rising level of North Korean belligerence, the imminent prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, and a war against jihadists that in the span of less than two years has spread from the Middle East to Africa. Forsaking a principled commitment to a robust national defense undermines an essential part of Republicans’ claim to responsible governance. Sequestration will hollow all the military services, but because it takes longer to build aircraft and much longer to build ships, American air and seapower are especially vulnerable. In particular, exhausting the Navy’s ability to project power and respond to crises will diminish our security and carve large chunks out of the international order that American seapower helped establish beginning in the early 20th century.
The administration originally requested that Congress appropriate a little over $167 billion to fund the military’s operations and maintenance (O&M) for fiscal year 2013. When agreement on the budget proved unreachable, Congress, as has become the new norm, agreed on a continuing resolution to fund O&M. These accounts pay for organizing, training, equipping, repairing, and operating U.S. military forces. The continuing resolution funded these activities at the previous year’s level, in this case about 6 percent less than what the administration had requested. As the military’s service chiefs told Congress the week of March 4, this will, itself, cause significant reductions in training, maintenance, and operational readiness. And if no way can be found around the more draconian sequester, funds for military operations and maintenance will shrink by another 8 percent.
Consider specifics. Under the continuing resolution, the Navy was to receive 7 percent less than it would have if the legislative and executive branches could have agreed on a budget for this fiscal year. But, banking on a deal that would have restored O&M funds depleted by the continuing resolution, the Navy was permitted to spend at slightly higher levels at the beginning of the fiscal year in October. Then came the sequester, which took away roughly another 7 percent against funds that had already been depleted. So the Navy is stuck with significantly less money to operate its ships and no prospect of relief from its global tasks.
What does this mean? The Navy announced its plans (assuming no financial deus ex machina) the day after sequestration became a fact. In April it will shut down one aircraft carrier wing, that is, the group of aircraft borne by a single carrier. Another three carrier wings will see their flying time shaved, while an additional two air wings will be “reduced to minimum safe flying levels” by the end of the year. Thus they would not be available immediately to sail with a carrier if a crisis occurred. Until now, postwar presidents faced with crises have always asked, “Where are the carriers?” Henceforth, they will be asking, “When will their planes be ready?” The fact is, sending aircraft carrier planes into combat when their pilots are not at the peak of their ability is an invitation to disaster. The alternative is to wait until the carrier wing regains the qualifications to take off and land on a carrier as well as conduct combat missions, by which time the crisis may have passed—with regrettable consequences.
Adding to this unreadiness is the cancellation of deployment of as many as six ships around the world. This gap should be regarded with particular concern as Navy and civilian leaders in this administration have argued repeatedly that the size of the fleet matters less and less since the capabilities of individual ships have increased. Other money-saving measures include an early return to the United States of a guided missile destroyer that is protecting the sole aircraft carrier that remains in the Middle East after USS Harry S. Truman’s deployment to the Persian Gulf was canceled in February (in anticipation of the sequester). This is just the beginning of sequestration’s effects.
The Middle East is far from the only area affected by the Navy’s planned budget cuts. Four logistics ships assigned to the Pacific Command will be laid up next month, which is especially noteworthy because the Pacific’s immensity makes resupply critical to effective presence and, if necessary, combat missions. Other areas of the world are also harmed. A frigate’s deployment to the U.S. Southern Command will end early. The Southern Command is primarily responsible for assisting friendly nations with stemming the flow of illicit drugs into the United States and wiping out narcotics dealers. It is also increasingly burdened with the growing coziness between narco-traffickers and Middle Eastern jihadists. The Navy’s traditional humanitarian mission in Central and South America carried out by ships, Seabees (construction battalions), and medical units will also be “deferred.” They earn goodwill and contribute to smooth relations with nations with whom we work to alleviate the problems of illegal drugs and imported terror. And, again, this is just the beginning of sequestration.
Nor do the cuts stop at current missions. The Navy plans to begin negotiations with its contractors to end payments on vessels for which funds will not be available. This will harm the Navy’s attack submarine program and the construction of the nuclear reactors that power some surface and all combatant subsurface vessels. The effects will multiply in coming years as increasing shortfalls in the fleet will prevent it from covering regions that until now have been considered central to American strategic interests.
Although it may sound inconsequential, the Navy’s crack team of performing fighter aircraft, the Blue Angels, will be canceled for now. The Blue Angels are not only a superb instrument of recruiting. Their appearance around the nation is an inspiration that reminds viewers of the excellence, bravery, discipline, and need for strong naval forces that some of our elected representatives seem to have forgotten. They symbolize the real thing—for both domestic audiences and foreign onlookers.
In sum, sequestration faces the Navy with degrading its readiness, decreasing its presence in the two most volatile regions of the world, the Middle East and East Asia, and deferring the investments required to keep the fleet from shrinking more than it already has. And—it is important to remember—even if sequestration is somehow finessed, both the Congressional Budget Office and the Congressional Research Service agree that if the Navy were to receive the large increases in shipbuilding funds that it wants over the next 30 years, it will still fall substantially short of its goal, resulting in a smaller fleet than the already shrunken one that now exists.
This sets a course for naval impotence. It will vacate the international order that American seapower has played a key role in establishing over the past century. Our place will be filled by chaos, or by China’s growing naval power, or by some combination of the two. This is as dangerous for the nation’s security as it is foolish for political leaders to acquiesce to.
Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute. He served as a naval officer from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and G. H. W. Bush administrations. His book Mayday, on the rise and decline of American seapower, will be published by Overlook Press in April.