The Landing Zone | 11.16.12
By Alan W. Dowd
With the election now behind
us, it’s time for the president and Congress to return to the urgent budget
work left undone during the long campaign. Specifically, they must avert the draconian
defense cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act’s “sequestration” mechanism. But
what if they don’t?
“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 defending this
pre-sequestration round of cuts, President Obama assured Americans that they
weren’t really cuts. “Over the next 10 years,” he said in
January, “the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the
matter is this: It will still grow.” That’s a fair point: Slower growth is not
a cut. Budget hawks have been making that case for 40 years. (Apparently, that
logic doesn’t apply to social programs, but that’s a subject for another essay.)
Even so, holding the Pentagon’s budget growth near or
below the inflation rate, as the president prescribed in his pre-sequestration
plan, means fewer weapons systems, fewer troops, slower recapitalization and
more risk. In fact, a Pentagon report issued in January 2012 conceded,
“These budget reductions are not without risk.”
For instance, the Navy has
been ordered to cut surface combatants from 85 ships to 78, stretch the build time of new aircraft carriers from five to
seven years and sought a special
congressional waiver to
deploy just 10 carriers (rather than the legally-mandated 11) while the USS Gerald Ford is completed.
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. Funding for missile defenses has been cut. A DOD report on 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, M-1 tank upgrades, armored vehicles and other assets.
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. Plus, CSBA points
out that a dozen new weapons systems were terminated and many 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.”
Remember, all of this is before sequestration.
If we add the cuts already on
the books to sequestration, the Pentagon is looking down the barrel of nearly
$1 trillion in cuts over the next decade. As Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey
warns, after sequestration, “We wouldn’t be the global power that we know
ourselves to be today.”
post-sequestration military would be unrecognizable from today’s
If the sequestration guillotine falls, it will lop
off vital organs of U.S. military power, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently detailed:
Sequestration “would render most of our ship and
construction projects un-executable.”
could force the Pentagon to “terminate” the new bomber program, Joint Strike
Fighter program, helicopter and combat-vehicle modernization programs, and missile
defenses in Europe. And it could “eliminate” the
ICBM leg of the nuclear Triad.
sequestration cuts, “We would have the smallest ground force since 1940, the
smallest number of ships since 1915 and the smallest Air Force in its history.”
These cuts might make sense
if peace were breaking out around the world. But we know the very opposite to
be true. America is still at war in Afghanistan. Terrorist networks like
al-Qaeda are increasing their influence in Africa, Iraq and Yemen. Mexico is hemorrhaging.
Libya and Egypt are simmering. Syria is on fire, and NATO ally Turkey is being scorched
by the flames. The oil-rich Arab monarchies are terrified about the Arab Spring
spreading and Iranian nukes sprouting. Nuclear-armed Pakistan is less stable
and more paranoid than ever, as is nuclear-armed North Korea. “We’re within an
inch of war almost every day in that part of the world,” Panetta said of the
situation on the Korean Peninsula.
Moreover, 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. According
to the Pentagon’s latest report on China’s military power, Beijing is pouring
increasing sums into cruise missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles, counter-space
weapons, cyber capabilities, bomber upgrades, surface combatants and
submarines—assets focused on countering American power. Likewise, Russia has
unveiled plans to deploy 2,300 new tanks, 600 new warplanes, 400 new ICBMs and
eight new nuclear subs—all in the next 10 years.
As Robert Gates observed before he left his
Pentagon post, “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”—and falling fast.
The military is already
contributing more than its share to solving America’s fiscal problems. The next
step is for the president and Congress to tackle long-term entitlement reform and
to make sure the Pentagon is protected from sequestration—for there is no
social security without national security.
The Landing Zone is Dowd’s monthly column on national defense and international security featured on the American Legion's website.