Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Enough Is Enough

The coming fight over defense cuts.

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

The supercommittee has failed. Sequestration seems to be the order of the day. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has warned that, as a result of impending across-the-board reductions mandated by sequestration, the Pentagon stands to absorb a $550 billion cut over the next 10 years. "The impact of these cuts will be devastating for the Department," he wrote to Senators McCain and Graham on Nov. 14. He added, for good measure, "we would have to formulate a new security strategy that accepted substantial risk of not meeting our defense needs."

As if that were not enough, Panetta went on to specify the nature of the cuts. Over the course of the sequester the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter would be terminated, as would the new bomber program, the littoral combat ship, and all ground-combat vehicle modernization programs. Even in the short term, ship and military construction programs would be seriously reduced. The cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, already well beyond initial estimates, would skyrocket. Training and other readiness accounts would also suffer.  

The supercommittee has failed. Sequestration seems to be the order of the day. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has warned that, as a result of impending across-the-board reductions mandated by sequestration, the Pentagon stands to absorb a $550 billion cut over the next 10 years. "The impact of these cuts will be devastating for the Department," he wrote to Senators McCain and Graham on Nov. 14. He added, for good measure, "we would have to formulate a new security strategy that accepted substantial risk of not meeting our defense needs."

As if that were not enough, Panetta went on to specify the nature of the cuts. Over the course of the sequester the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter would be terminated, as would the new bomber program, the littoral combat ship, and all ground-combat vehicle modernization programs. Even in the short term, ship and military construction programs would be seriously reduced. The cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, already well beyond initial estimates, would skyrocket. Training and other readiness accounts would also suffer.  

All very frightening stuff, except that the impact of a sequester is still very much avoidable. Panetta, more than most people, knows that Congress can legislate exceptions to a sequester, reduce the sequester, or eliminate it entirely. He was serving in the House of Representatives in 1988, and indeed had already been a member of the House Budget Committee, when Congress wiped out the sequester mandated by the 1985 Balanced Budget Emergency Deficit Control Act, known as "Gramm-Rudman-Hollings." In 1990, as chairman of the House Budget Committee, he played a major role in the passage of legislation that once again circumvented Gramm-Rudman-Hollings by lowering sequestration levels from the mandated $16 billion to $4.5 billion. And he was still House Budget Committee chairman the following year when the Congress again rescinded a smaller sum mandated by the sequester.

The sequester does not actually take effect until the beginning of Fiscal Year 2013, that is, Oct. 1, 2012. Congress could exempt defense from the sequester any time before that date; if it does so sometime next spring, the Defense Department would have ample time to revise its FY 2013 submission with an amendment that would restore any cuts inserted into that submission in anticipation of the sequester.

Why then, has Panetta warned of gloom and doom if the sequester were to pass? Precisely because the president wishes to keep his hands clean of all cuts, and yet wants to go ahead with them, come what may. Obama has already threatened to veto any legislation that would do exactly what Panetta and his colleagues had done two decades ago. In other words, were the Congress to exempt Defense from the sequester, the president would be prepared to veto that exemption, even though doing so would, in Panetta’s words to Sensators McCain and Graham, "after ten years of these 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."

Since the secretary is a team player, he must live within the constraints set by the White House. He cannot anticipate that any congressional attempt to exempt defense from the vice of sequestration might succeed. Instead, he has to take the president’s veto threat at face value. Accordingly,  the Defense Department must therefore go through its laborious planning, programming and budgeting exercise on the assumption that the sequester will hold. But doing so does more than distort the allocation of budget resources by limiting procurement as well as military construction. It also sends an immediate and  terrible message to friends and allies.

For example, faced with the promise of a veto threat to any changes to the sequester, those of our closest allies who are  heavily invested in the F-35 fighter will have to assume that their money has been wasted. Some may peremptorily withdraw from the program on the assumption that it is dead. Enemies will assume that the United States has begun to withdraw from the world stage and may begin to act more aggressively without even waiting for the cuts to materialize.

The consequences of proceeding along a course of action that assumes a sequester are therefore extremely serious, even if the president doesn’t follow through on his veto threat and the sequester is reversed.

Defense has already contributed mightily toward deficit reduction. Sequestration is actually the third major defense budget reduction in two years. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reduced the future years’ defense budget by about $90 billion. Obama imposed another $360 billion in cuts over the next 10 years. So the Pentagon has already been cut by nearly a half trillion dollars. Enough is enough. Indeed it is more than enough: withdrawal from Iraq, and the drawdown in Afghanistan will further reduce defense expenditures by about $1 trillion over the next 10 years. 

Congress should emulate its predecessors in the 1990s and pass legislation that exempts Defense from the sequester. If the president wishes to veto that legislation, then he will have to answer for the consequences to our national security that his secretary of defense laid out so clearly. Unless, of course, Congress were override the veto, which it most certainly should.

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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