Pentagon spokesman George Little recently talked about what the U.S. military accomplished during Hurricane Sandy: installed hundreds of generators, removed millions of gallons of water and tons of debris, and ferried millions of meals and gallons of fuel to affected areas.
And, he added, it did this while continuing to wage an 11-year-old war in Afghanistan.
“I point this out because if Congress does not enact defense authorization legislation for fiscal year 2013 in a timely fashion, it could seriously hamper our ability to plan and to operate,” Little added.
The debate over the so-called “fiscal cliff” – the combination of spending cuts and tax increases if Congress and the White House fail to reach a deal – has been a high-stakes game of politics and budgeting.
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Without an agreement by Jan. 2, nowhere will those cuts – called sequestration – be deeper than in the Department of Defense.
“If sequestration is allowed to go into effect, it’ll be a disaster for national defense,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said earlier this year. “It would be irresponsible not to reduce the budget and do our role in confronting the fiscal challenges facing this country.”
Yet around the Pentagon it’s an oft-repeated fact that the building, which plans for everything and every contingency, had not started planning until this week for what in a month could become a 9.4 percent cut to its current base budget. Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale has said that sequestration would mean an expected $52 billion in cuts for fiscal 2013 – $500 billion over the next decade – and would be phased in over months.
Those short- and long-term cuts would be in addition to as-yet unapproved plans in the budget to cut $487 billion in the coming decade.
Because military personnel have been exempted, the likely results would be a drastic reduction in new contracts, as well as less money for training and maintenance. The exact impact is not known, but there are fears it could force the Pentagon to rethink the so-called “pivot” to focus on the Pacific.
In addition, civilian employees would face furloughs, and because purchases would be slashed, existing contracts would have to be reworked.
A study by the Federal Funds Information for States, a group that tracks federal spending, estimated that every state would lose, but by varying degrees. California, for instance, would lose about $4.2 billion in defense spending next year if a deal is not reached. Florida would lose $1.3 billion, while Kentucky would lose $500 million.
The cuts are described as across the board, but for practical reasons would not be.
“The war fighters overseas would be protected,” said Lt. Col Elizabeth Robbins, a Pentagon press officer, “but at a cost to training stateside.”
She said there are memories around the building of training exercises in the 1970s where troops went to the firing ranges, aimed their weapons “and said bang, because we didn’t have the budget for ammunition. When there aren’t enough funds to train, unit effectiveness is degraded and readiness becomes an illusion."
The Pentagon has insisted that it has no plan for sequestration and won’t until it’s officially the law.
“Essentially, what the Pentagon is saying by not having a plan is that you can’t kill us because we’re going to commit suicide first,” said Anthony Cordesman, a longtime expert on American defense and security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Cordesman said that the cuts are possible. The United States spends as much on defense as the next 13 biggest spenders combined. Given the fact that “the real problem isn’t the deficit or the debt, but that revenue and spending don’t match up,” he said that deeper cuts than have been put into budgets are probably called for.
Speaking at Duke University in North Carolina last week, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter acknowledged the need to rethink military spending “after almost 12 years of unrelenting and uninterrupted war.”
But he said sequestration was not the way to accomplish that.
“It’s not just the amount of dollars, it’s the idiotic way that we are required to take those cuts,” he said. “It was designed to be too horrible to ever be implemented. And so if it comes to pass, it will inevitably lead to the hollowing of our force, and everything we’ve tried to accomplish.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s 21st Century Defense Initiative, said the sad reality is that the discussion is focused on how much to spend on defense, when it needs to be how best to spend to get the defense Americans want.
“How much further budget cutting, if any, is sensible?” O’Hanlon said. “I have my views, and others have theirs, but we aren’t really having the debate on those terms now.”