Smart defense cuts will avoid disaster

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Congress, in order to meet the budget mandates under the recently enacted Budget Control Act (BCA), will need to collaborate in making hard choices about the size, staffing, training and equipping of our forces and the supporting defense infrastructure — choices that if avoided or delayed will put us on the road to a hollow force and greater risk to our national security.

After past wars, we allowed our military forces to atrophy, with disastrous results. Task Force Smith, hastily deployed to delay the North Korean advance in July of 1950, was poorly trained, raggedly equipped, understaffed and forced to quickly retreat. “No more Task Force Smiths” was Chief of Staff General Gordon Sullivan’s byword as he managed the drawdown of Army forces after Desert Storm. His declaration has become a watchword at the Pentagon of the dangers of a hollow force.

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Hollow forces don’t just happen — they are Washington-made by Pentagon and congressional leaders in lean budget times who fail to make choices and, instead, seek to stretch a shrinking blanket of resources over a force structure that grows more expensive, on a per capita basis, with inflation. Money is shaved, year by year, and gradually military units are shorted full complements of personnel, while maintenance, training and modernization programs go underfunded.

In today’s era of persistent conflict, we face similar challenges as we manage the reduction of our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as we continue to modernize and posture our forces to support ongoing operations.

Panetta has stated: “No hollow force on my watch.” The danger for our armed forces, however, is not likely to occur in the near-term. The BCA exempts supplemental funding for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, thereby allowing DOD to fully fund war-related expenses (and likely some costs that would otherwise be part of the base budget.) The danger is that poor decisions taken today will emerge in our forces five to 10 years from now.

I agree with Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen’s judgment that the Defense budget can absorb the first round of BCA-mandated cuts — approximately $350B over 10 years — without undermining our national security. For FY 2012, these initial reductions amount to 5 cents on the dollar, a savings that can be absorbed. At a time of economic stress across the country, all elements of government must do their part.

A number of expert panels have repeatedly identified where DOD could, and should, make changes that would have little impact on our war-fighting capabilities, and yield important savings, including: 

• Base Closure and Realignment to reduce DOD’s 15-20 percent excess infrastructure;

• DOD healthcare reform to curb the department’s rapidly rising healthcare costs, projected to cost $60 billion annually by 2016;

• Pay and benefit reforms to modernize DOD’s system that requires uniformed personnel to stay for at least 20 years for pension benefits, and offers equal benefits to each service member at 20 years regardless of their military occupational specialty, operational experience or the needs of the service; and

• Contract for non-inherently government services to realign DOD’s civilian personnel end-strength, which has grown by more than 100,000 since 2007, adding billions in annual and long-term costs to the budget.

Difficult as these cuts will be to enact — and any changes to pay and benefits will need to sustain our commitment to service people and their families — the savings will have the greatest impact three to seven years into the future. For FY 2013, I am deeply concerned about the impact on DOD of the possible second round of BCA-mandated cuts if Congress fails to pass the necessary deficit-reduction legislation by Dec. 23. On a pro-rata basis, DOD’s share of the full BCA deficit measures — round one and two — would be approximately $99B in FY 2013, an enormous, one-year 17 percent cut in the budget.  

Even if Congress averts the most extreme BCA impacts on DOD, as I believe it will, Panetta will need to lay out a strategy, force structure and force development plan for FY 2013 and beyond based on constrained and moderately declining defense resources. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, before retiring, created the right framework for these decisions by initiating a comprehensive review of all defense missions and capabilities with the objective of preserving “a U.S. military capable of meeting crucial national security priorities even if fiscal pressure requires reductions in the force’s size.”

The hardest and most important choices for Panetta and the Congress will be deciding the number of brigades, squadrons and ships that together will constitute our defense combat force structure. We cannot sustain today’s missions (or do more) with less. The choices are stark but clear: maintaining our current force structure and choosing to take savings by reducing uniformed personnel numbers and shaving procurement and maintenance funds will result in units that are under-staffed, under-equipped and under-trained. Morale among the soldiers, sailors, airman and Marines will drop, retention suffer and we will lose our most important resource — our people.

I would hope that the specter of the draconian BCA-related cuts — and the similar cuts to domestic programs across the federal government — will bring forth “the better angels of our nature” in our political process. We keep faith with our men and women in uniform when we ensure that they are and remain the best equipped, trained and supported forces in the world.

Cohen is a former secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton and is currently the chairman and CEO of The Cohen Group, an international business advisory firm.