ASCF Report | 7.1.12
By Alan W. Dowd

Ever since Congress passed the Budget Control Act of 2011—an exercise in kick-the-can policymaking—“sequestration” has been hanging over the Pentagon like a guillotine. “Sequestration” is the catchall term used to describe automatic spending cuts to the U.S. military of $500 billion if Congress fails to reach a deficit-reduction deal by the end of this year. These cuts, it pays to recall, would come in addition to the $487 billion the Pentagon has already carved from its spending plans over the next 10 years. In short, sequestration would decimate the Pentagon and drastically limit America’s reach and role in the world.

Catastrophic Cuts

Even before the sequestration guillotine was hoisted over the Pentagon, the military was asked to make cuts that no other part of the federal government was asked to make. Spending on health care, education and entitlements has exploded in recent years, with no end in sight.

Yet the Navy has been ordered to cut the number of surface combatants from 85 ships to 78, stretch the “build time” of new aircraft carriers from five to seven years, and had to seek a special congressional waiver to deploy just 10 carriers (rather than the legally-mandated 11) while the USS Gerald Ford is built and other flattops are retired or refurbished. Pressed by budget-cutters, the Air Force has announced plans to reduce its fleet by 286 planes. The active-duty Army will be cut from 570,000 soldiers to 490,000; the Marines from 202,000 to 182,000. The administration has slashed $810 million from the Missile Defense Agency, cut spending on ground-based missile defense by 22 percent and reduced the number of warships to be retrofitted with missile-defense capabilities by seven. A DOD reporton weapons-acquisition plans for 2013 reveals spending cuts in combat drones, F-35 fighter-bombers, F/A-18 fighter-bombers, V-22 heli-planes, UH-60 helicopters, KC-46 refuelers, M-1 tank upgrades, Stryker armored vehicles, aircraft carriers, submarines, and a number of satellites and space-based sensors.

Remember, all of this is before sequestration.

For perspective, compare these numbers with some from the not-too-distant past. In 1991, the total active-duty force was 2 million; today, it’s hovering around 1.3 million—and falling fast. In 1991, the U.S. deployed 15 aircraft carriers, some 300 bombers and nearly 4,000 fighters; today, the U.S. deploys 10 carriers, 162 bombers and roughly 2,000 fighters. At the height of the Reagan buildup, the Navy boasted 587 ships. The size of today’s fleet is 285 ships. Current recapitalization rates will not keep up with plans to retire ships, leading to “a Navy of 240-250 ships at best,” according to former Navy Secretary John Lehman.

That brings us to modernization and replacement. Although the defense budget grew by $300 billion in the decade after 9/11, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) notes that just 16 percent of that increase was earmarked for modernization and new weapons systems. However,CSBA points out that a dozen new weapons systems were terminated and many systems had their numbers cut below end-strength goals (e.g., the F-22). “The aggregate effect is that a significant portion of DOD’s investment in modernization over the past decade did not result in force modernization.”

Sequestration will only exacerbate these issues: even less modernization, even fewer troops and even more cuts. That explains why policymakers are using terms like “catastrophic” and “disaster” to describe the consequences of sequestration.

Threats and Consequences
These cuts might make sense if peace were breaking out all around the world. But we know the very opposite to be true. America is still at war in Afghanistan. Terrorist networks like al-Qaeda still have the ability to strike and are increasing their influence in the Horn of Africa and in Yemen. Nuclear-armed Pakistan is less stable and more paranoid than ever, as is nuclear-armed North Korea. Iran is racing ahead with its own nuclear-weapons program. The Arab Spring revolution has triggered a civil war in Syria. Syrian forces have already attacked NATO ally Turkey. Is the U.S. military ready to defend Turkey, if and when the Syrian civil war is fully internationalized? Moreover, what happens if the revolution spreads to the oil-rich Arab monarchies? And what path will the new governments in Egypt and Libya ultimately choose?

These, it could be argued, are not even our principal worries. As the U.S. declaws itself, China is boosting military spending by 11 percent this year, capping double-digit increases in nine of the past 10 years. That unparalleled buildup has empowered Beijing to bully its neighbors; launch cyber-attacks against the United States; conduct provocative military operations in space; and deploy a swelling arsenal of missiles, submarines and warplanes to project its power. “Many of Beijing’s military capability goals have now been realized, resulting in impressive military might,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper concedes.

According to the Pentagon’s latest report on China’s military power, Beijing is pouring increasing sums into advanced cruise missiles, conventional ballistic missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles, counter-space weapons, military cyberspace capabilities, upgrades to its bomber fleet, a new stealth fighter-bomber, 79 principal surface combatants, 50 submarines, and 51 amphibious and medium landing—assets “designed to enable anti-access/area-denial missions.” In other words, these assets are focused on the U.S. Navy’s ability to come to the aid of allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region. 

Likewise, Russia—in the midst of a planned 65-percent increase in military spending—is making claims in the Arctic, occupying parts of Georgia, blocking international action in Iran, providing arms and cover to Syria, buzzing North American airspace, and carrying out provocative maneuvers and weapons deployments in areas bordering NATO states. Russia’s 2012 military expenditures are up 20 percent from 2011 levels. And Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has unveiled plans to deploy 2,300 new tanks, 600 new fighters and bombers, 400 new ICBMs and eight new nuclear subs—all in the next 10 years.

So, while Beijing rapidly upgrades to a 21st-century military and Russia reloads, the Army and Marines will make do with older tanks and fewer troops; the Navy will try to stretch a 10-carrier fleet to do the work of 12 carriers; and the Air Force will get smaller and older. According to Air Force Magazine, the average age of the active-duty air fleet is 20.4 years; the average age of the bomber fleet is 30.3 years.

If the sequestration guillotine falls, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey warns of a Pentagon with “fewer options and a lot less capacity,” adding “we wouldn’t be the global power that we know ourselves to be today.”

In fact, it’s already happening. Those who claim a smaller military won’t limit the ability of military commanders to project American power and deter America’s enemies may want to glance at the Persian Gulf. Earlier this year, CENTCOM Commander Gen. James Mattis requested an extra aircraft carrier to send a deterrent message after Tehran had threatened to attack U.S. ships in the Strait of Hormuz. But that request was denied because the extra carrier was needed in the Pacific.


Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has proposed paying for sequestration’s draconian Pentagon provisions by reducing the size of the federal workforce. A 10-percent reduction in the federal workforce over 10 years “pays for the most damaging year of sequestration,” which would be 2013, according to McKeon.

Yet another solution is to heed the words of the current defense secretary and his predecessor—and cut the fat from where it exists in the federal government.

“No budget can be balanced on the back of defense spending alone,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta contends. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates was even more forceful in one of his last addresses before retiring, noting that “The defense budget, however large it may be, is not the cause of this country’s fiscal woes.” He pointed out that in 1961 defense consumed half the federal budget, while it accounted for 9 percent of U.S. GDP. Today, defense spending “represents less than 15 percent of all federal spending and equates to roughly three and a half percent of GDP.”

Indeed, we could eliminate the entire defense budget—$662 billion this year—and turn the Pentagon into a mega-mall. And yet we would still face a budget deficit of $700 billion, due to the insatiable appetite of entitlements.

The hard truth is that Social Security, Medicare and other entitlements are simply not as important as national security. After all, the Constitution calls on the government to “provide for the common defense” in the very first sentence; then grants Congress the power to declare war, “raise and support armies…provide and maintain a navy…make rules for calling forth the militia…provide for organizing, arming and disciplining the militia”; authorizes the president to serve as “commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states”; discusses war, treason and America’s enemies in Article III; and emphasizes the importance of a “well-regulated militia” to the “security of a free state” in the Bill of Rights. On the other hand, the Constitution says nothing about retirement pensions, social safety nets, stimulus programs or health care.

The Founders understood that if their new government didn’t provide for the common defense, it wouldn’t be able to provide anything else—and the American people wouldn’t be able to live free, let alone pursue happiness.

*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.