The dominant meme regarding the effects of budget sequestration on the Department of Defense is that it will be bad for military readiness in the future. However, military readiness is already less than it should be and sequestration will make it worse. We do not have to wait for sequestration to bite for the U.S. military to experience readiness problems. Today’s military is not ready. This may sound implausible if not impossible after nearly a decade of war, defense budget increases and growth in the size of the Army and Marine Corps, but it is true. There are a number of reasons for this situation.
- The military didn’t focus on a range of missions in this period: amphibious operations, combined arms maneuver warfare and anti-submarine warfare, to name just three.
- The Pentagon allowed much of its fleets of vehicles, ships and aircraft to grow older, even obsolescent.
- The Department of Defense failed to invest sufficiently in next-generation capabilities.
Our two conflicts and the patterns of investment to support them also have created new “pockets” of unreadiness. This is due to the way we responded to urgent operational needs from the theater. Lots of capabilities that were not acquired through programs of record, did not have sustainment plans, were one-off. Airborne tactical ISR is a good example of this. A variety of platforms with an array of sensors were deployed and operated very successfully. Now the military is trying to standardize this fleet to support cost-effective operations. The same situation exists for MRAP vehicles, counter-improvised explosive device capabilities and tactical networks.
So we are starting in a disadvantageous position even before the next round of sequestration and a potential Continuing Resolution (CR) hits.
The way a CR and sequestration work also is a contributor to unreadiness. The military services have repeatedly found themselves with shortfalls in operations and maintenance accounts with surpluses in others that they were unable to address because of the CR. Add to this the inflexibility of sequestration on top of the decision to exempt the military personnel account from cuts and the effects are truly catastrophic with programs out of balance, underfunded due to the CR, then cut an additional 10-30 percent. Particularly hard hit are O&M accounts because that is where the money is on an annual basis, followed by the procurement accounts.
In addition, the Pentagon has refused to build sequestration into their budget plans or even their budget expenditures in a given fiscal year. Consequently, when a budget is finalized and the cuts taken, it will come well into the year and they are magnified. What would be a 10 percent sequester cut if spread over the entire year becomes a 20 or 30 percent cut if it is taken in the last half or final quarter of the year. Program Managers are often not allowed to hold back money in anticipation of sequestration, increasing the severity of the cuts when they hit.
The impact of sequestration on the industrial base will be nothing short of catastrophic. The Army is looking to shutter the nation’s sole tank and armored infantry vehicle plants. The Army claims it is only temporary but let it try to find the same workforce and suppliers after a hiatus of years. With the delivery of the last C-17 there will be no large body military aircraft in production in the U.S. for the first time in more than 75 years. Sequestration could force the defense department to break its contractual commitments for many major acquisition programs including the F-35, V-22, DDG-51, KC-46, SSN and EF-18G.
How bad could this be for the military? Well, last year sequestration grounded more U.S. combat aircraft – Air Force and Navy – than were lost at Pearl Harbor. In addition, maintenance on more than two dozen ships had to be cancelled. The military was able to recover by budgetary devices, such as exploiting unexpended balances, but this is a one trick pony.
The future of military readiness is bleak. Army sources report that Brigade Combat Team readiness already is at the lowest readiness level in 40 years. It is squeezing readiness across the force in order to ensure that those units scheduled for deployment are fully capable and trained. If sequestration goes forward, the Navy will be required to delay more than half its ship maintenance availabilities next year and reduce its training to “just in time.” It will have to shut down two air wings for three months each and limit four others to only the minimum level of flying.
I expect sequestration to last at least through 2014. It is increasingly likely to extend through 2016, until after the elections. Moreover, there is a growing sense among knowledgeable observers that the sequestration budget levels could be a ceiling, not a floor for defense spending out through 2023. Remember that overall federal spending is expected to begin to rise sharply toward the end of the decade, reigniting the issue of taxes and spending. Faced with these problems, and absent a serious threat to national security, defense spending could continue its downward slide.
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