Sequester Defense Spending Cuts 2013: Will The US Be Less Safe After The Ax Falls On The Pentagon?

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In about three weeks, lawmakers in the U.S. Congress will be at each other’s throats again as they continue playing a favorite Washington parlor game: governing by crisis. This time around, though, it is the military and the safety of the nation that will be at the forefront of those decisions, as sequestration -- the capital's buzzword for automatic spending cuts -- is due to begin taking effect March 1.

Legislators did not actually intend for the sequestration to really happen. It was a mechanism created by Congress in August 2011 when the federal debt ceiling was raised. Because lawmakers couldn't agree on a deficit-cutting plan then, they voted for automatic spending cuts in 2013 unless a plan for balancing the budget was drawn up. So far, that hasn't occurred. And if the status quo remains, $1.2 trillion in automatic defense and nondefense spending cuts, divided evenly, will kick in over the next decade, starting next month.

While the chasm between Democrats and Republicans on a budget deal remains large -- and sequestration seems almost a certainty -- the loudest voices in the two parties actually agree on one key point: trimming the Defense Department's 10-year budget by about $500 billion would be devastating to the military and severely threaten the safety of the U.S.

Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a recent speech that "sequestration, this legislative madness that was designed to be so bad -- so bad -- that no one in their right mind would let it happen" would "seriously degrade our ability to respond to crises precisely at a time of rising instability across the globe."

And on the GOP side of the aisle, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said not long ago that cutting the defense budget so sharply "would jeopardize our national security ... and, literally, our ability to defend the nation.”

But are they right? Looking at the possible cuts closely, some experts say that these politicians are overreacting, and that, in reality, they are defending the Pentagon's bureaucratic turf -- its value as measured by its annual funding -- not the country in opposing the budget cuts. 

“The Defense Department will have enough latitude to protect what’s crucial and I don’t think we will be less safe in 2013 or thereafter,” said Mattea Kramer, the research director at the National Priorities Project in Northampton, Mass.

For one thing, the 2011 U.S. defense budget, about $700 billion, dwarfed those of all other nations by a large amount. China, the second-biggest spender, had a defense budget of $143 billion that year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. No other country even breaks into the triple digits of billions of dollars.

For another, because the spending cuts will roll in over a decade, the average yearly cut would be about $45 billion, little more than 5 percent of America’s annual defense spending. And, according to Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington and an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, "even if the defense budget were reduced by the entire $1 trillion, or about $100 billion a year over the next decade, it would amount to a reduction of [the defense budget] of about 15 percent." Which means that annual defense spending would be about equal to what it was in 2007 -- when the U.S. was involved in two active wars.

How To Remain A Superpower

To operate in a more challenged funding environment without compromising homeland defense, the Pentagon should use the opportunity afforded by sequestration -- or by whatever smaller budget it ends up with -- to revisit the nature of global threats and its response to them, a growing of experts believe. National-security needs have shifted dramatically since the Cold War, from containing a lone rival superpower to combating terrorism, fighting smaller conflicts, and cyberwarfare. In that time, the U.S. has, in many ways, moved away from deterrence to prevention.

The key capability that the Defense Department should focus on in this environment is navigating a more varied, contested, and asynchronous battlefield, the experts say. Instead of ballistic missile defense programs, the Pentagon would be better served and its budget better used by spending more money to train and equip special-operations forces, the kind that killed Osama bin Laden, and to develop more innovative submarines, unmanned and manned stealthy long-range aircraft, and offensive and defensive cyberwarfare systems, said Todd Harrison, a defense and budget expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

Many analysts say a prime candidate for the scrap heap would be the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor, a stealth fighter jet that was tailor-made to counter the Soviets’ missiles, but entered service, after a lengthy process, only in 2005, 14 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It hasn’t seen combat in any of the wars America has fought since, it has been plagued by technical problems, and each one costs as much as $405 million.

It would make more sense to spend on unglamorous container security, to fight the threat of terrorist weapons smuggled into the country's ports, said the National Priorities Project's Kramer.

“It is not easy,” Kramer said of scrapping obsolete programs at the Pentagon. “It's a long-haul project to clean out these programs."

Rare Bipartisan Voice

A June 2010 report by the Sustainable Defense Task Force, "Debt, Deficit, and Defense: A Way Forward," which was backed by a bipartisan congressional team led by Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass., on the left, and Ron Paul, R-Texas, on the right, outlined several options that could save more than $900 billion between 2011 and 2020. They included cutting the U.S. nuclear arsenal to 1,000 warheads and curtailing nuclear-weapons research; limiting peacetime military personnel in Europe to 35,000 and in Asia to 65,000; trimming the number of ships and planes in the Navy; retiring some Air Force tactical fighters; cutting back the number of Marine Corps battalions and Army brigades; and either delaying or ending procurement of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, KC-X Aerial Refueling Tanker, MV-22 Osprey, and Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.

“I do not believe ... that people can dismiss the argument that you can responsibly, and at no cost to America’s genuine security, make reductions of over a trillion dollars [in the military budget]," said Frank, who retired from Congress this year.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, which focuses on innovative approaches to emerging security challenges, suggested that a possible cost-cutting solution lies in using the National Guard more. “It would seem to me that putting much of the U.S. Air Force and Army into the Guard, and putting some appreciable fraction of the Navy into drydock, would save several boatloads of money,” he said, adding that the Air Force has “ten times the lethality of two decades ago, and yet we still seem to need about as many planes as when we had twice as many enemies.”

Indeed, Pike noted there are no shortage of possible answers and potential budget fixes for the Pentagon, but that to decide on which ones to implement would require a bipartisan consensus that at this point isn’t there. “Someone needs to ask some of the larger questions,” Pike said.

For many in Washington, sequester is a word best uttered in dark alleys and speakeasies, not in the public sphere. In fact, even those who aren't as concerned about the budget cuts view sequestering as a foolhardy and laughable approach to writing budgets and fiscal sanity. Nonetheless, it may be the best thing that could have happened to the Pentagon.

“Nobody is under the impression this is the most responsible way for reducing spending,” the National Priorities Project's Kramer said. “It wasn't intended to be an intelligent way of reducing spending -- and it’s not. But if you look at how we are spending money, there are programs that we are spending on that are not making us safe.”

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