Last week President Obama took the unusual step of going to the Pentagon to announce a new defense strategy. In doing so he did more than put his personal stamp on the new document. Obama also was drumming up support for the budget cuts ($480 billion over ten years) that had necessitated the reductions in military forces which, in turn, necessitated a new defense strategy. The political purpose for making the trek to the Pentagon was to set up the scene where every senior defense office and the Joint Chiefs of Staff stood shoulder to shoulder behind the Commander in Chief.
There is just one problem. The new strategy will only work if cuts in projected defense budgets are no greater than $480 billion. However, under last year’s Budget Control Act (BCA) the failure of the supercommittee to achieve $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions will require nearly half that amount to be taken out of defense in a process called sequestration. No less an authority than the Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, has described such cuts as “catastrophic.”
The BCA is a particularly bad way to enforce deficit reductions. The law requires all defense accounts with the possible exception of personnel to take reductions. The Pentagon will have no ability to manage the effects of these cuts including to protect critical programs by taking deeper reductions in other areas. The result, according to a senior defense official, will be the disruption of every single acquisition program.
The BCA goes into effect on January 1, 2013. But its impact on activities such as the purchase of long-lead items for future ship and aircraft construction could be felt in 2012. In addition, how can any defense company make investment decisions, including those that might reduce the costs of its products and save the government money, with sequestration hanging over its head?
Some members of Congress have proposed alternatives to gutting defense by $1 trillion. Some have suggested doing away with the BCA. Others have identified alternative sources of savings such as a major reduction in the civilian defense workforce. The President has declared that he would veto any law that seeks to do away with or change the terms of the BCA.
The likeliest scenario is that the next president will enter office with a defense program that is busted. The imposition of draconian cuts will undermine the new defense strategy. President Obama knows this. As the Commander in Chief he should be leading the effort to find an alternative to mindless, draconian budget cuts. He is not because he hopes to pressure Congress into election-year tax increases in order to protect the military. The President is putting his hard-won reputation as strong on defense at risk. How many generals does Obama think will line up behind him on the podium when it comes time to announce yet another budget-driven new defense strategy?
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