Pete Hegseth, an Army National Guard infantry officer who has served tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, is a member of Concerned Veterans for America.
Is it time for major cuts in U.S. defense spending? According to at least one recent poll, a staggering 76 percent of Americans surveyed believe the answer is “yes.” But does that make it a good idea?
As a concerned citizen, I sympathize with that viewpoint, particularly in light of our staggering $15.8 trillion national debt. But as a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, I also know we should be careful what we wish for. There’s a right way to reduce defense spending and there’s a wrong way. Right now, we’re on the path to reduce spending in all the wrong ways.
Why? Because of automatic spending cuts that go by the unwieldy name of “budget sequestration.” These automatic cuts, as dictated by the Budget Control Act passed by Congress and signed by the president in 2011, are slated to reduce defense spending by $500 billion over the next 10 years, with $50 billion in cuts planned to take effect in January 2013. This reduction in defense spending comes on top of almost $500 billion in long-term military cuts already proposed by President Obama. In total, DOD faces nearly $1 trillion in cuts.
These automatic spending reductions mean that, instead of a budget scalpel that makes smart, surgical cuts, we’re getting what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta memorably described as a “meat ax,” bluntly chopping away at key, strategic priorities in the defense budget. In fact, both Democrats and Republicans readily acknowledge that these cuts were intended to be so deep, and so drastic, that Congress would never allow them. But alas, they’re upon us. The result? In a time of war and global uncertainty, we will see a dramatic deterioration in our nation’s force readiness and future capabilities systemically compromised.
For example, most Americans don’t realize it, but the Pentagon is currently eyeing lay-offs of combat troops, including “early outs” for service members who have been planning on a career in the military. When Army Assistant Secretary Thomas Lamont testified before Congress in April, he suggested that some 24,000 soldiers would be released from the service to meet budget targets. The US Marine Corps alone could shrink by a proposed 20,000 troops – a reduction of about 20 percent.
It gets worse. In addition to radically reducing the size of the armed forces, budget cutters are pushing to target retirement benefits for our veterans. Officials hope to eke out savings by requiring higher fees and co-pays for the military health care system known as Tricare; but given that veterans served with the implicit understanding that they’d be cared for after their service, it’s hard to see this as anything but a moral breach of contract.
Moreover, reducing benefits for veterans and warfighters is a disincentive to recruitment. How do we attract the best and brightest to military service when they watch the government hold the service of their forefathers in such little regard? The end result of these automatic cuts – which will land most heavily on our warfighters and veterans – will be a hollowing out of our armed forces, with a serious degradation in our military preparedness.
A smarter way to reduce defense spending would be to target the systemic inefficiencies, duplicative programs, cost overruns, and endemic waste that permeates the Pentagon budget and bureaucracy. To take just one recent example: In June, the Washington Post reported on creative budgeting in the Department of Defense that allows the Pentagon to shift literally hundreds of millions of dollars from program to program with little accountability. Reforming the culture at the Pentagon to bring greater spending accountability will be difficult, but it’s long overdue.
While the forecast for defense budgeting looks cloudy, there is a ray of light poking through the horizon – in the form of the Sequestration Transparency Act, a bill in the House of Representatives that would require budget officials to be forthcoming about what budget cuts under sequestration will actually look like. Right now, with less than six months until these dramatic cuts go into effect, we still have little idea of precisely what those cuts will look like. Well, except the “meat ax.” We need a fuller accounting of the administration’s thinking on defense spending cuts if our elected officials are to make informed decisions.
America’s veterans understand the need for reduced defense spending, especially in order to set the stage for reforms to the bloated entitlement programs that are actually bankrupting America. But we also need assurances that the cuts are targeted in such a way that future warfighters won’t be ill-prepared for future conflicts.
As members of Congress spar over our nation’s defense spending priorities, I urge them to remember that while it might seem politically expedient to cut indiscriminately, it won’t serve our nation’s national security interests. We desperately need courageous politicians who will cut through the political dysfunction that is “sequestration” and stand up for targeted spending cuts that protect our national security and defense priorities.