WASHINGTON: Congress’ failure to enact Super Committee cuts is likely to lead to serious reductions in funding for Pentagon weapon systems, according to one of the most respected defense budget analysts.
Todd Harrison, the budget analyst at the respected Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, told a group of reporters eager to go home for Thanksgiving that a “majority of the cuts” are likely to come from the acquisition budget.
Although Congress and the Pentagon could save huge amounts of money by trimming some health and other personnel benefits, the political pain would just be just too much to bear, Harrison predicted. (After all, these are the same brave souls who brought America to the brink of ruin by bargaining over our national debt last summer and could do absolutely nothing to make the $1.2 trillion in cuts needed to avoid sequestration. Why we might expect them to exhibit a little gumption and lead is beyond me.)
One area Congress might very profitably cut would be the $5,580 dollars per person per year the Pentagon must budget to provide Tricare for life to the roughly 20 percent of service members who stay in the military to retirement age. A reminder — Tricare is Medicare gap insurance, not the basic health insurance.
But if such items as Tricare for life are not trimmed, Harrison predicts a 21 percent drop in fiscal 2013 weapons spending, which will probably mean “programs being terminated outright.”
Top of the list for major cuts or termination — surprise, surprise — is the Pentagon’s largest program ever, the Joint Strike Fighter, Harrison said. While the Air Force and Marines are deeply committed to the F-35, the Navy –eager to protect its shipbuilding budget — is much more comfortable eyeing upgrades or extensions of existing systems such as the F-18.
Harrison noted that, as happens with every budget, there will be winners and losers. Among the winners are likely to be unmanned systems, especially stealthy Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). [See the RQ-170 Sentinel — the Beast of Kandahar — in photo for some idea of what they may look like.]
Buying a manned aircraft requires almost twice as many planes so that pilots can be trained, Harrison said. So buying stealthy UAVs that can operate in denied airspace would seem to be a path down which the department might go.
Another area we might see budget dollars going into — given that Washington always tried to find ways to preserve the status quo — is the wartime budget, which is separate from the so-called base budget. “Wherever possible I think we will see the department moving some of these costs into the war budget,” Harrison said, mentioning that the Senate Appropriations Committee had already set a precedent by moving $10 billion from the base budget into the war accounts. So Congress would seem happy with this sort of legerdemain.
But cuts are coming; make no mistake. If sequestration cuts are implemented, the U.S defense budget would sink below 3 percent of GDP. “I can’t think of when we’ve been that low in recent US history,” Harrison said. And that level of spending brings into question whether we can afford our current strategy of global primacy. “It could be that Europe becomes a lower priority area for us,” he said could be one effect. Another might be greater dependence on rising power allies such as India.
What are the political parameters within which this may play out? Congress has a year to play with these cuts. President Obama has pledged to veto any effort to circumvent the sequestration, though he has not said he would not accept significant cuts that come close to the $1.2 trillion the Super Committee failed to do anything about. Then there’s the upcoming election on top of an already demonstrably useless U.S. Congress when it comes to federal spending. Tricks and budget magic look awfully likely in the face of such grim drivers.