It is one thing to look for ways of reducing defense spending as part of an overall program to rein in the size and cost of government. It is quite another to do so in such a maladroit and downright simply stupid manner that it threatens national security. Yet, this is precisely what the Executive and Legislative branches have managed to do. Sequestration, coming on top of almost $1 trillion in defense spending cuts between 2009 and 2023 promises not simply to cut defense but rather to gut it. Were that not sufficient, Congress is standing in the way of virtually every effort by the Department of Defense (DoD) to find ways other than reducing readiness, modernization or force structure in order to meet the sequestration budget caps. The White House is doing its part to drive the military into the ground by continually asking it to do more with less. If the National Defense Panel makes one useful contribution to the debate on national security it will be by calling out the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review for its total failure to match ambitions to resources.
We already had a foreshadowing in 2013 of what is to come under sequestration. The administration submitted a fantasy FY 2013 budget, one that simply did not recognize the reality of sequestration. Nor did it allow the Pentagon to plan on the basis of the sequestration-required across the board spending cuts taking effect. When the budget manure hit the sequestration fan, the result was a massive blow to readiness. The Air Force stood down 33 squadrons, cut flying hours for its remaining units and reduced maintenance activities. The Navy cancelled dozens of maintenance availabilities for ships as well as reduced training activities and purchases of spare parts. The Army and Marine Corps were hit equally hard. Some of these cuts were restored in FY 2014 as a result of the Ryan-Murray budget agreement as well as by one-time budget tricks such as applying unexpended balances from lower priority programs to high priority readiness needs.
But the bag of tricks is now empty. If sequestration is triggered next year, the consequences could well break the military. What does this mean? Well, units will lack the training, maintenance or supplies to conduct required military missions. Ships will be tied up at the pier, combat aircraft left in the hanger, trucks and armored vehicles sidelined in the motor pools or in depots and training facilities will stand unused. Critical modernization programs will be cut back. In a number of cases, DoD will be forced to break multi-year procurement contracts that offer the Pentagon a price break. This means that the military will get fewer new ships or airplanes and will have to pay more for each one. Vital ISR platforms will be unavailable to provide forward deployed forces with critical intelligence and targeting information. The result could well be U.S. forces going into combat ill-prepared to fight and win.
Ironically, this threat to the viability of the Air Force is emerging just as the service is undertaking the most far-reaching modernization program in a generation. The Air Force has three vital modernization programs: the KC-46A tanker, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the new bomber. All three are progressing well and two are actually in production. Sequestration could set all three of these programs back years.
The key to the Air Force’s success in combat over the past several decades has been due to training. Yet, the number of available flying hours today are about half of what they were a decade ago. The Air Force cut back on flying hours hoping to make do with time in simulators. However, as a result of additional budget cuts, it never was able to buy enough simulators. Today, the average Air Force pilot is allotted fewer flying hours for training than his Chinese counterpart.
Without adequate training, maintenance, intelligence and communications the Air Force cannot operate as a modern fighting force. Even peacetime activities will become riskier, with a higher chance of accidents. Years of underfunding readiness, maintenance and modernization has put the Air Force on the edge of the precipice. It could be the first service to break under the weight of sequestration, Congressional neglect and White House indifference.
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