It’s a problem that defense budget experts warn is not being addressed by Congress, which failed to stop sequestration, or the Pentagon, which submitted a 2014 budget $52 billion above the sequestration budget caps.
At the event, the four think tanks were tasked with deciding how they would shape the Pentagon budget over the next decade if they had to cut $500 billion, the amount of the sequester over 10 years, or half of that amount, a scenario some envision if a budget compromise is reached.
The game gave the groups the option of cutting — or adding — to the defense budget in 650 different ways in order to simulate the options available to the Pentagon.
All of the think tanks chose to take steps that have been resisted by Congress, such as closing bases and cutting infrastructure under the Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC).
CBSA’s Todd Harrison, who moderated the discussion, noted that all think tanks chose to close bases even though that cost them money in the scenario.
“At some point, it begins to get even too silly for Congress not to do BRAC,” said Clark Murdock, who led the CSIS team.
The scenario also made assumptions that so far have not been politically feasible, such as giving the Pentagon full flexibility to make the cuts it wants and making them in five year chunks, rather than year-by-year as the sequester demands.
Robert Work of CNAS said that without that flexibility, the cuts are nearly impossible to carry out.
“The wheels will come off. There is no way around it,” Work said when describing the scenario that the sequester-level budget cuts were carried out in 2014 and 2015.
Most lawmakers in Congress disagree with the way that sequestration is cutting the defense budget, but there’s been little momentum to change the cuts.
The budgets that have been passed by both the House and Senate don’t take sequester into account in 2014, and the Pentagon’s budget request did not either.
Some lawmakers have asked the Pentagon to explain how it would cut $52 billion from its 2014 budget in order to generate momentum to stave off the cuts.
At Wednesday’s event, the four think tanks had varying assessments of how much the smaller defense budgets would shrink U.S. military power around the world, although they approached the cuts in many similar ways.
All laid out their scenarios with the caveat that they did not believe it was the best military strategy, but rather the best approach if the cuts are not going away.
The groups all achieved the biggest savings by making cuts to personnel accounts. That included savings with reductions in active duty and reserve forces, as well as Pentagon civilians.
Under full sequestration, the think tanks all cut readiness, although they also put some of those cuts back into the budget when they only were required to cut half of the sequester amount.
There was also a uniform push for more investment in stealth and unmanned aircraft, science and technology and cyber capabilities even if defense budgets declined. The think tanks also all called for retiring carriers, cruisers and destroyers under the smaller budgets, as well as non-stealth fighter aircraft.