Sequestration is the law of the land. It happened despite protests from both right and left that it was a stupid and harmful way to cut spending. It is a manifestation of our broken political process, and happened because Congress and the White House simply are not doing their jobs.
The public has watched the stalemate in Washington, D.C., in disgust, and most agree that sequestration is no way to run a country. But, frustrated by politicians who won’t reduce the deficit, many people are accepting bad spending cuts as preferable to no spending cuts.
Most people are unaware that sequestration is only the most recent of several blows to our military in the past two years. Cutting fat is one thing, but cutting military muscle is not wise.
IN JANUARY 2011, the secretary of defense made the decision to reduce the size of the Army by 27,000 soldiers and the Marine Corps by 20,000 Marines. These cuts do not take effect until 2014 and 2015, so the military will be absorbing this troop loss at the same time they are dealing with financial cuts discussed below.
Wars are expensive, and the government properly funds war expenditures from a separate account. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, these contingency funds will disappear – a necessary but painful process. However, it is difficult to completely separate peacetime and wartime costs, and the contingency funds invariably have helped military funding in general. Elimination of war contingency funding is appropriate, but nevertheless creates financial difficulties for the military.
A huge blow to military funding was dealt by the Budget Control Act, the result of the 2011 debt ceiling negotiations. These negotiations cut $1 trillion from discretionary spending over a decade, nearly $500 billion of which came from the military. The military is still addressing this financial loss, with most of the cuts still ahead.
The next funding trauma comes from the failure of Congress to approve the 2013 budget. Instead, Congress has pegged funding at 2012 levels through a device known as a “continuing resolution.” This creates circumstances in which the military cannot move funds between accounts without congressional approval, so the money from a program the military decides to eliminate in 2013 cannot be used to fund a new program.
The final challenge thrown at the military is the sequester, which requires another $500 billion cut in this decade. Because the military must make so many cuts so quickly, and with little latitude on where to make cuts, training and readiness will be decimated.
THOSE WHO support sequestration emphasize that the amount being cut is only about 2.4 percent of the federal budget. That is only part of the story. So much of the budget has been protected from cuts that the military must absorb a cut of about 9 percent – and they must do it in six months!
The Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, articulated the impact on the Army. In the next six months the sequester cuts $12 billion, and the continuing resolution makes $6 billion more unavailable. As a result, 251,000 Army civilians will be furloughed; 80 percent of stateside soldiers will stop training; and 500 to 750 helicopter pilots won’t be trained. The loss of these trained pilots will be felt for years, because the training pipeline cannot expand enough to replace them later.
The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps will suffer similar degradations in readiness.
A post-war drawdown is necessary, but always traumatic for the military. Thousands of good people are forced out of the service, bases must be closed and new weapons systems cut back or eliminated.
But the irresponsible cuts from sequestration, and the continuing resolution that Congress and the president have imposed on the military, amount to piling on. They will make an always-difficult transition far more perilous, and will degrade national security to an extent yet unknown.
THE DEBILITATING effect is not instantaneous. There will be a slow deterioration of our military’s readiness, modernization, force levels and morale. America will be less prepared the next time there is a threat to our security. And just as it will be a slow deterioration, it will be a slow recovery when we finally recognize we have cut our military too much, too fast and too thoughtlessly.
In Washington nothing is ever over, and in the case of sequestration that is a good thing. Congress and the White House can accomplish several things in the coming weeks to mitigate the worst impacts of sequestration, while preserving needed deficit reduction.
Job No. 1 is for Congress and the White House to provide flexibility to federal departments and agencies on how to make the cuts. Instead of the meat cleaver approach directed by the sequester and the continuing resolution, modify the law to allow the military to make smarter spending cuts. Provide them a dollar value of cuts by year, and then let Congress approve what they propose.
THE NEXT CHANGE is for Congress to go back to work and find entitlement cuts and revenue increases to reduce the total amount of the cuts. Then they need to change the timing of the cuts to recognize that 2013 cuts are the most damaging.
The reason the president and Congress cannot agree is because they won’t compromise on revenue and entitlements. Both know it needs to be done, but they would rather engage in a childish mano-a-mano struggle in which compromise is feared, and the country’s security is less important than their own political power. We would be far better served if our politicians had the courage of the military they are undermining.
The postwar drawdown of the military is necessary. But America has a sad history of imagining that we are no longer threatened, cutting too deep and finding itself with a diminished and weakened military. Let’s learn from history so we are not doomed to repeat it.
(The writer is a retired U.S. Navy officer. He lives and writes in Savannah.)