For more than a year, the Pentagon declined to detail the impact of the battle-ax approach to cutting spending known as sequestration. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his allies bet that the prospect was so dire that lawmakers would reach a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction pact that would avert the calamity.
They cried wolf, without details.
But now, with Chuck Hagel running the Pentagon—and with sequestration the law of the land—the Defense Department is still crying wolf, but offering details of cut aircraft, docked warships, grounded drones and cashiered troops. It has just rolled out a report detailing how bad letting the automatic spending cuts resume, after a two-year relaxation, will be.
More than $1 trillion in “reductions to planned defense spending” between 2012 and 2021 “would significantly increase risks both in the short- and long-term,” says the report, released Monday night. “If sequestration-level cuts persist, our forces will assume substantial additional risks in certain missions and will continue to face significant readiness and modernization challenges.”
Note the conflation of “reductions to planned defense spending” to “cuts.” Whatever you want to call the caps, they only push defense spending back down to 2006 levels, when the U.S. was waging two wars.
The report says the required reductions translate into 15 fewer F-35s aircraft, five fewer KC-46 tankers, six few sub-hunting P-8 aircraft through 2021. It trims the Navy’s current 289-ship fleet by seven vessels, including a carrier—and doesn’t buy eight new ships. It grounds the Predator and Global Hawk drone fleets. The number of military personnel also would be cut: the Army would dip to 420,000 from its current goal of about 440,000.
Unfortunately for the Pentagon, there are scant signs the report is going to end sequestration. Defense hawks maintain the cuts will do massive damage to the national defense, while deficit hawks have said a soaring debt would be more dangerous than a weakened defense. So far, the deficit hawks are prevailing.
“I don’t see any, right now looking forward, I don’t see any possibility of overturning it,” Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the chairman of the armed services committee, said in February. “My read on it is there are people that have bought into it, that think that it’s doing a good job, that it’s really cutting our spending, so I personally just don’t see that that’s going to end until a lot of pain is felt by a lot of people…This year is going to be really bad and next year is going to be worse, and the next year will really be worse.”
Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, suggested Tuesday that President Obama may simply ignore sequestration’s caps as he and the Pentagon assemble the 2016 defense budget, which will be unveiled early next year. “This is not definitive, and I don’t want to get ahead of the president, but I will tell you that it is extremely unlikely that we will ask for less money than the President thinks he needs to defend the country,” Kendall said. “I lived through a hollow force in the 1970s as an Army captain in Europe. We don't want to go back to that.”