The President, congressional leaders of both parties and senior military leaders all agreed: Sequestration should never happen. Yet here we are, one month in. Two critical questions arise: Is sequestration really that bad for national security? And what, if anything, should the government do about it?
To answer the first question: yes. As then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last month, the automatic cut in the Pentagon’s budget–$500 billion over nine years–will “hollow the military” and mire it in the “most serious readiness crisis” in a decade. These effects, taking hold gradually, will last years into the future.
Some people don’t want to believe this. They look at U.S. defense spending–roughly $647 billion annually-and wonder what’s the big deal about “trimming” less than 10 percent from a budget that dwarfs the combined military budgets of our foes.
But comparisons to others’ military spending are misleading. North Korea and Iran, for example, spend much less, but their spending focuses on developing specific military capabilities that pose a huge strategic threat to the U.S. It’s much less expensive to pursue a purely offensive military posture, driven by aggressive policies. Additionally, the U.S. has made security commitments to numerous allies–obligations that other nations simply do not have.
It all adds up to a simple truth: It’s expensive to build and maintain a global military posture capable of deterring conflict in the first place and assuring the defeat of aggression if it should occur. There is a cost to placing a premium on American lives, including those of our warfighters.
Moreover, the sequester was specifically designed to impose as much harm as possible on the Pentagon. The idea was to create a spending reduction so grotesquely irresponsible that Congress and the President would be forced to produce a reasonable alternative for cutting $1 trillion from the entire federal budget. But reasonable alternatives are in short supply in Washington, and the Pentagon is stuck with oversized, indiscriminate, uniform-percentage reductions in every single program, project, and activity.
These cuts are biting into meat rather than fat because they come on top of several previous cuts. In the Obama Administration’s first term, Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta eliminated $1 trillion dollars from defense. Sequestration cuts therefore necessitate reduced procurement (fewer airplanes, ships, missiles and tanks), deferred construction (of military schools, runway maintenance, and family housing) and foregone training (essential for optimal preparedness).
Sequestration’s need-blind cuts produce a sad irony: The spending reductions create inefficiencies rather than eliminate them. For example, the Pentagon will place civilian workers on unpaid furloughs. This includes not just the people who repair weapons systems, creating a costly deferred-maintenance problem, but the people who audit the Pentagon’s performance to make sure programs operate efficiently.
Additionally, many procurement programs require full funding to achieve efficiencies of scale. With only partial funding available, production of items such as satellites and ships must be delayed or, in some cases, eliminated altogether. Production delays create more–not fewer–inefficiencies.
So, what should Washington do about this self-generated mess? The continuing resolution signed into law last week was a much-needed stopgap, giving Defense Department leadership both funding and flexibility. But the CR leaves the sequester cuts still in place: Undoing sequestration must come next.
For the longer term, Washington needs to return to regular budget order. The President’s FY 2014 budget was due, by law, on Feb. 4. He has now promised to submit it by April 10. The two-month delay is not inconsequential. Congress needs to see a defense budget from the President so they can evaluate his defense priorities and assess whether or not the vulnerabilities his military budget would create are acceptable.
Above all, Washington must recognize that it is not asking the military to do less. As rogue regimes from North Korea to Iran to Syria edge ever closer to Administration-defined “red lines,” the odds increase that our servicemen and women will be asked to do more. Yet sequestration insists that they do more with less. That is the best recipe for the hollow force.
The President and Congress must find common ground to undo sequestration’s deleterious effects on defense in the short term while resolving to restore funding to needed levels in the longer term. Savings should not come at the cost of readiness. And Washington must not let the federal spending crisis precipitate a national security crisis.
—Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Mark D. Shackelford most recently served as the Military Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, overseeing all research, development, and procurement. Rebeccah Heinrichs is a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, specializing in national defense policy.