What the Sequester Has Wrought for Defense

What the Sequester Has Wrought for Defense

When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled the essence (though not the contents) of the Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR), it marked the first time that the administration acknowledged the possibility, and only the possibility, that the sequester might continue into the next fiscal year. The fact that virtually everyone in Washington considers the sequester’s survival a certainty, and that many analysts predict that it could last several years, appears to be lost on the administration. The White House and, because it is under orders, the Defense Department continue to press ahead with a fiscal year 2014 defense budget proposal that the White House acknowledges to be $52 billion above the $498 billion level that the sequester would mandate.

It is arguable that the White House has quite deliberately ignored reality precisely in order to blame Congress, as well as the fiscal year 2011 Budget Control Act that created the sequester, for prompting what are increasingly being viewed as catastrophic spending cuts. After all, the sequester was originally inspired in the White House itself — so Bob Woodward has informed us — but its consequences have enabled the administration to slash defense expenditures, whose utility it has always doubted, while claiming that its budgetary hands are clean. The White House deserves credit for its politically brilliant sleight of hand. Unfortunately, there are other consequences to the defense cuts, and these are not so brilliant.

As Hagel made clear in his SCMR briefings, the brunt of the sequester will be borne by the operations and acquisition accounts, as well as by reductions in all the active forces, notably the Army. There will be other nominal reductions, of course. There will be some reductions in civilian personnel, and there will be requests to Congress, certain to be rejected, for reductions in various military compensation programs, as well as for a new round of base closures. As America cuts back on its operations, including exercises with allies, port visits, and other manifestations of American presence, credibility, deterrence of adversaries, and reassurance to friends worldwide, the international community will take notice.

Indeed, policymakers on three continents indicate in private that notice has already been taken. In the Middle East, Arab allies witnessing the impact of budget cuts on regional presence are concerned about the "pivot" to Asia. In East Asia, allies are worried that the U.S. budget reductions, coupled with the secretary of state’s preoccupation with a variety of crises and negotiations in the Middle East, have rendered the "pivot" meaningless. Europeans worry that the United States is withdrawing its forces too quickly and reducing them too deeply, whether in order to pivot to Asia or bring them home and discharge them.

The fact that the SCMR has "strategic" in its title is also a source of confusion. It appears to be another manifestation of the administration’s penchant for budget-driven strategies, a trend that has been discernible since the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. Budget-driven strategies are in fact not strategies at all, and it is this reality that is such a great cause for concern overseas.

Hagel and his deputy, Ash Carter, have both rightly pointed out that significant funds could be saved through a variety of management efficiencies. They note, again correctly, that the savings from most of these management actions will not be realized in the short term. More troubling, however, is the fact that many of these efficiencies have long been rejected by Congress, and it would take a concerted effort not merely by the Pentagon’s E Ring, but by the West Wing, to bring them about. Thus far, there has been no indication that the White House is prepared to invest any of its political capital on behalf of the Defense Department.

There are other short-term solutions, however. In particular, the defense budget needn’t be subjected to the full torment of the sequester if the administration were to request that the Congress rejigger the system for contributing to debt reduction. The current formula, prescribed by the Budget Control Act, calls for defense to bear 50 percent of reductions mandated by the sequester, while all other discretionary spending is reduced by about 36 percent. (Savings on mandatory expenditures account for the remainder.) The formula could be altered simply by redistributing the budget reduction load so that it is equally shared by defense and non-defense discretionary spending. Doing so would reduce the mandated cut in defense by about $8 billion, a sum that could then be applied to critical operations, training, and exercises. 

Unfortunately, the White House seems no less interested in realigning the sequester than it is in supporting Pentagon efficiencies. Indeed, the president has made clear on numerous occasions that the Defense Department needs to bear an equal share in the burden of budget reductions, as if the country’s security is equivalent to the output of some middling agency of uncertain efficiency and questionable effectiveness.

Until the administration changes its attitude to bearing the true cost of national security, that security will remain at serious risk. Past significant reductions in U.S. military capability have been followed by costly wars: notably Korea in 1950 and Iraq in 1990 and 1991. One can hope that this pattern will not repeat itself in the not-too-distant future, but it will take much more than hope to ensure that America retains its military might and provides not only for its own security but that of its allies and friends, well into this relatively new century.