As the Pentagon prepares for looming disaster on March 1when so-called "sequestration" is scheduled to take effect -- cutting $46 billion this year and a total of $500 billion from defense budgets over a decade -- defense policy makers must come up with a realistic cost savings plan now so Congress is better positioned to halt this nightmare before it’s too late.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has continued to direct stinging criticism at Congress, this week lamenting that “we can’t just sit here and b*tch, we have got to solve real problems facing this country.”
The Secretary is right to be frustrated. However, much of the blame can be traced directly back to the Obama administration as it was the architect behind sequestration as the “unthinkable” alternative to Congress’s Debt Super Committee failing to reach agreement on reducing the national deficit.
The Budget Control Act of 2011 already cuts $487 billion from defense budgets over the next decade - sequestration’s additional $500 billion dollars in military cuts will total over $1 trillion. Such sharp reductions were thought to be too extreme to ever take place. During a presidential debate just months ago, President Obama said sequestration would never happen. But now, two weeks away, it looks like it very well may.
And the consequences will be disastrous for the nation.
In the near term, we’ll see curtailed military operations around the globe, sharp reductions in maintenance and training funds, and furloughs of 800,000 Defense Department civilian workers. Already one aircraft carrier deployment to the Persian Gulf has been cancelled as the Harry S. Truman carrier strike group never left Norfolk, Virginia, while DoD civilian workers can expect about a month, 22 workdays, of unpaid leave from April through Sept, equaling a 20% pay cut over six months.
In the long term, we will face massive cuts to weapons programs, a further drawdown of the 100,000 ground troops already slated for cuts, and we’ll have fewer, yet aging ships and aircraft.
The Navy’s 288 ships are the fewest in service since World War I, and is down to 10 aircraft carriers from a standard of 12 over the past decades.
The Air Force is flying the oldest aircraft in its history, averaging 25 years each, and relying on an assortment of planes like B-52 bombers and KC-135 refueling tankers over 50 years old.
Sequestration will hollow out the military like it was during the 1970s and leave us unable to adequately meet the threats we face today from terrorist networks and rogue nations like Iran and North Korea.
So what can Pentagon policy makers do to help Congress stop this madness?
First, they must come up with realistic spending cuts starting in three principal ways:
Institute acquisition reform – Major cost overruns and delays to major weapons systems, including ships, aircraft, assault vehicles and more have become the norm. Part of the reason is that these new systems are so technologically advanced, research and development requires trial and error to get it right. And as fewer units are produced, the cost goes up. The Pentagon needs to find a better way to manage this system, and increase joint use of platforms among the services.
Downsizing DoD civilian workforce – In the aftermath of 9/11, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the civilian workforce expanded to 800,000 to fill critical jobs in maintenance, intelligence, logistics and administration allowing more military men and women to deploy to the battlefield. Though while 100,000 ground troops are being cut, there is no comparable drawdown of civilians due to complex federal regulations that make it near impossible to send them pink slips. A combination of natural attrition and hiring freezes should be used, not simply sending them all home for a month without pay.
Trimming health care costs – Like in the civilian population, the military also has baby boomers in retirement who are becoming more costly to care for as they age. The military must find ways to better trim these costs, including its health care program TRICARE reducing overhead and administrative costs as feasible. Though it won’t be easy, as we’ve seen in the civilian world. And tens of thousands of Wounded Warriors who were severely injured in Iraq and Afghanistan will require long term care for some time to come.
There are smart ways to reduce defense spending as these three examples show, but a sudden, across the board cut is a terrible way to run a government – and deeply unfair to those who have served to protect the nation.
Sequestration also sends a terrible message around the world – it conveys an image that America is in sharp decline as a great power.
History shows us that when one power declines, others rise to take its place – thus will just encourage real and potential adversaries to accelerate their military strength and test us worldwide. Iran, North Korea and even Russia are doing that right now. China is rapidly expanding its military might, and flexing its muscles with Japan and other allies in the Pacific. Should we weaken significantly, no doubt we’re next.
Let’s hope that Pentagon policy makers can work with Congress right away so that the nightmare of sequestration does not become a reality. Our nation simply can’t afford it to happen.
J.D. Gordon is a retired Navy Commander who served as a Pentagon spokesman in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-09. He serves as senior adviser to several Washington-based think tanks.