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Will Obama and the Pentagon do the right thing when the sequester arrives?

The sequester—Washington’s mindless across the board budget cuts—is here. The question is whether the president will unilaterally grant flexibility to federal agencies to apply a measure of common sense in cutting fat, not muscle.

The White House claims it has no authority to allow intelligent cuts in spending as long as there is a stalemate with Congress. Even though the president has already made a series of decisions to interpret the law as he sees fit and no one has stopped him. 

He has exempted military pay from sequestration, along with the entire Veterans Affairs department. He also decided that war spending is subject to the budget ax; but that aerospace and defense manufacturers needed not follow the law and issue layoff notices last fall...just before the election.

The question is not whether sequestration will hit, but whether President Obama will allow it to hit the right targets and whether the Pentagon will meet the challenge.

The problem is that these are not the first defense cuts under Barack Obama. In fact, the president has been reducing military capability, capacity and budgets since entering office while generously growing other federal domestic spending. 

In his first two years in office, the administration cut a combined $400 billion from defense plans and programs, leading to the cancellation of key weapons systems, including the F-22, the Army’s Future Combat Systems, the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, and nearly 50 other major programs. 

In 2012, the Pentagon was directed to reduce another $78 billion in unidentified efficiencies and the current budget requests absorbs tranche one of the debt ceiling deal, which contains roughly a half trillion in military spending cuts over the next decade.

Together, these military reductions total almost $1 trillion—and that’s before sequestration.

Pentagon leaders have until now taken the easy way out by targeting two pots of money for the biggest hits: modernization and readiness: Modernization is the military’s investment in the future, while readiness pays for a healthy force today. Worse, these cuts are not saving substantial sums of money. 

This constantly-delayed modernization is causing the costs of maintaining rapidly aging legacy fleets to balloon. This has accelerated a readiness crisis in the force as well as deployments that are unexpectedly lengthened for servicemembers, parts for equipment that are cannibalized, units not set to deploy or experience downgraded readiness and supplies, while breakdowns are more frequent and maintenance is degraded.

The Navy offers a glimpse of the problems facing all the armed forces. Last year, for example, equipment failure prevented a U.S. Navy ship from meeting a commitment at sea twice in seven months’ time. In 2011, a full half of the Navy’s aircraft were not combat ready, and nearly a quarter of the Navy’s fleet failed the yearly inspection

Over the past five years, Navy inspections have found that a growing number of surface warships aren’t ready to fight: The ships are in bad physical shape, carry broken equipment, insufficient spare parts, and can't even rely upon their advanced weapons and sensors.

America’s military readiness crisis is not new, but it is new to the headlines. So, now what?

Pentagon leaders must stop targeting low-hanging fruit and cutting inefficiently. Instead, the sequester should force Obama’s Pentagon to confront the primary drivers of imbalanced defense spending, including military and civilian bureaucratic overhead, excess infrastructure, and runaway compensation costs. It is no secret that these are areas in need of reform.

An emerging bipartisan consensus, including former Obama administration officials, acknowledges that the time for this change is overdue. But if the real problems are so widely recognized, why have leaders so far failed to achieve real change? The short answer is that they lack courage and commitment.

When trying to slash excess overhead and infrastructure, Pentagon leaders should aim to shrink the bureaucracy while preserving core military capabilities. To do this, they need to begin collecting better information internally. 

The Pentagon does not currently assess the most affordable mix of military, civilian and contractors in its employment. Next, the department must develop tools to effectively match supply and demand for internal labor in order to understand which jobs may be eliminated and which competencies need additional staffing.  Without these simple tools at its disposal, it is not surprising the Pentagon has thus far been unable to size the workforce correctly.

Similarly, efforts to close additional bases have been unsuccessful. The 2005 base closure round was so poorly handled that it poisoned the trust between the Hill and Pentagon. 

It is time for creative solutions. 

One proposal of note by a senior Air Force official, for example, is for the Pentagon to select installations for closure based on the community’s interest in conversion and their ability to thrive in commercial redevelopment.

The sequester is law and will take effect Friday. In the face of continued defense cuts, Pentagon leaders face a stark choice: they can continue to do business as usual, raiding readiness and modernization or make the tougher but ultimately necessary step of addressing long-term challenges. Wholesale reform may not be easy, but it is the only responsible path forward. 

The question then, is not whether sequestration will hit, but whether Obama will allow it to hit the right targets and whether the Pentagon will meet the challenge.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). She has worked on defense issues in the U.S. Congress and at the Pentagon.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). She has worked on defense issues in the U.S. Congress and at the Pentagon.