There were no surprises in Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s public out briefing of the results of his Strategic Capabilities and Management Review (SCMR). Budget cuts on the scale mandated under the terms of the Budget Control Act will be devastating to the military. Either force levels will have to be slashed or modernization programs will be gutted.
It would be reasonable of anyone not familiar with the way government, in general, and the Pentagon, in particular, operates to ask why is this is the case. Why can’t the Department of Defense just cut back on its overhead, reduce unnecessary expenditures and get rid of excess property and personnel? That is what every business, family and individual does when income goes down. Look at what we all did when the 2008 recession hit. This is what defense companies have been doing for the past several years as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down.
The problem is that government does not operate in the same space-time continuum as the rest of us. It is always easier to spend more, increase the size of staffs and acquire extra infrastructure than to cut. For example, the size of DoD staffs doubled over the past decade. Yet, according to Secretary Hagel’s own plan, it will take until 2019 to reduce the bloat by 20 percent. In part, this is because of the different personnel rules that apply to government workers and military personnel. In his briefing, Hagel stressed that:
“…this analysis showed in the starkest terms how a 10 percent defense spending reduction causes the reality in a much higher reduction in military readiness and capability. Unlike the private sector, the federal government, and the Defense Department in particular, simply does not have the option of quickly shutting down excess facilities, eliminating entire organizations and operations, or shutting massive numbers of employees, at least not in a responsible, moral, and legal way.”
But, as the briefing pointed out, the problem also is a function of resistance from Congress and the White House to even modest efforts by the Pentagon to control costs. The single largest budget category and the one that is growing the fastest, personnel, was declared sacrosanct by President Obama for FY2013. Congress has repeatedly rejected proposals for changes to personnel compensation or reductions in excess infrastructure. More than half the defense budget was rendered off limits. As a result, “the only way to implement an additional, abrupt 10 percent reduction in the defense budget is to make senseless, non-strategic cuts that damage military readiness, disrupt operations, and erode our technological edge.”
The two choices for dealing with sequestration cuts analyzed by the SCMR essentially amount to breaking the force. This may sound alarmist or even apocalyptic but it is the case. Secretary Hagel warned that this could be the case even in the short-term. “If these abrupt cuts remain, we risk fielding a force that over the next few years is unprepared due to a lack of training, maintenance, and the latest equipment.”
Even if we can weather the near-term catastrophe that is a $52 billion budget cliff for FY2014, the longer-term consequences for the military of sequestration are dire. There is no way for either force, the one based on capability or the other biased towards capacity, to meet all the operational requirements dictated by the defense strategy and this nation’s international interests and obligations over time. The former will be too small, too readily worn out from overuse and the latter will eventually become technologically second rate. Secretary Hagel seemed to telegraph his preferred approach, emphasizing quality over quantity. He argued that without modernization we risked having a military less effective against more technologically advanced adversaries. Moreover, he warned that “we also have to consider how massive cuts to procurement, and research-and-development funding would impact the viability of America’s private sector industrial base.” Hagel suggested that his strategy would protect investments in such programs as a new bomber, submarines and undersea weapons and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Either way, over the long-term, unless the United States walks away from its position as the world’s sole superpower, a decade of sequestration will break the force.
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