Pentagon Responses To Threat Of Sequestration Point To A Hollow Military

For most of the past year, the Department of Defense (DoD) refused to plan for the possibility of sequestration, the processes enshrined in the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) that mandated $500 billion in cuts to future defense budgets if a Congressional super commission was unable to find the equivalent in alternative budget reduction or tax increases. These budget cuts were on top of nearly $500 billion that the BCA already took from projected defense spending. Now, faced with the growing possibility that sequestration may occur or if it doesn’t that deeper defense budget cuts are likely, Pentagon leaders have begun to circulate guidance memoranda to their staffs laying out initial responses. While a reasonable precaution given the current political environment in Washington, these memoranda also suggest that in seeking to manage the consequences of dramatic budget cuts while still projecting U.S. military power globally, DoD will accept the prospects of hollowing out the U.S. military.

In a memorandum titled “Handling Budget Uncertainty in Fiscal Year 2013,” the Deputy Secretary of Defense, Dr. Ashton Carter, points out something well understood in defense circles but apparently ignored elsewhere: the Pentagon faces two budget challenges. In addition to the management problems created by sequestration, DoD also is hobbled by the requirement to operate under a Continuing Resolution (CR) at least through the end of March, 2013. The CR forces the Pentagon to operate at last year’s funding levels which means, according to Carter that the department will run out of money before the end of the fiscal year in September. Compounding this problem, the memo points out that the Pentagon may be required to absorb the full impact of the $50 billion reduction required by sequestration in as few as six months.

The Deputy Secretary’s memo identifies areas of expenditure to be protected and those that should be targeted for savings. Priority programs that should be protected to the extent possible include: operating funds for the current conflict, Wounded Warrior, activities and investments related to the new defense strategy (whatever these may be since the Pentagon has never clearly identified them) and family programs. It also suggests areas where acquisition executives and program managers can look for savings such as reducing civilian contractors, a hiring freeze, furloughs for civilian employees, curtailing administrative expenses such as supply purchases, business IT, ceremonies and conferences, cancelling 3rd and 4th quarter ship maintenance availabilities and aviation and ground depot level maintenance activities and reducing facilities maintenance.

The Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff also published a memorandum providing guidance on near-term actions in anticipation of sequestration. Many of these are similar in nature to those proposed by the Deputy Secretary: hiring reductions, civilian furloughs, canceling non-readiness/non-mission critical activities and reduced supply purchases. More significant, the memo warns that sequestration will have a devastating impact on Air Fore readiness, creating a hollow force.

“The defense strategy requires that the Air Force maintain a high state of readiness across the total force. We cannot execute this strategy from a tiered readiness posture. The flying hour reductions will compel us to focus almost entirely on current missions such as training pipelines, Operation Enduring Freedom spin-ups and other deployments while sacrificing preparedness for other contingencies and OPLANS [operation plans]. Thus the 18% cut will be applied disproportionately across the force; deployed and next-to-deploy units will be minimally cut, leaving remaining units to take the brunt of the cuts and stand down for extended periods. These units are likely to fall to the lowest readiness levels and will require extensive time and funding to recover.”

We have been here before. The force described by the Air Force memo is the one DoD had in the 1970s and again in the 1990s as a consequence of decisions by the Carter and Clinton Administrations, respectively. When the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan began, the U.S. Army alone required some $50 billion just to reverse shortfalls in equipment maintenance and spare parts inventories. The Air Force entered the wars with hundreds of aircraft redlined due to deferred maintenance and repairs. Ammunition stocks were at dangerously low levels.

The Obama Administration is taking the country back to the era of a hollow military. To borrow from one of T.S. Elliot’s best-know poems, “The Hollow Men,” this is the way the world’s greatest military ends, not with a bang but with a hollowing out.