Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee last week, the military’s service chiefs issued stark warnings about the damage sequestration has done and the havoc it could wreak if the cuts are not reversed.
It was a familiar tale for the committee, one the military brass have been telling for two years.
The cuts have been in place for six months, and the Pentagon has furloughed civilians, reduced training and delayed maintenance in order to reduce its 2013 budget by $37 billion.
Defense hawks and the industry say the cuts have been bad but that they’re only going to get worse in 2014 and beyond.
“It’s my opinion that we would struggle to even meet one major contingency operation,” said Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff.
But the warnings from the Pentagon, repeated endlessly since the 2011 Budget Control Act set sequestration in motion, have not moved the needle in Congress. Except for a two-month delay at the start of 2013, lawmakers and the Obama administration have been unable to turn off the cuts the military says will lead to a hollow force, despite a desire from most Democrats and Republicans to do so.
Now Congress and the White House are gearing up for major fiscal fights over funding the government and raising the debt limit. Senate Democrats say they want to address sequestration in November as part of a broader spending package, but there’s been no sign the parties are any closer to an agreement on how to end the sequester.
“Most of us on the committee — some of us will disagree on how we got to sequestration, we disagree on a way forward — we’re at least unified in the fact that we need to do away with sequestration,” Rep. Randy ForbesRandy ForbesTrump makes little headway filling out Pentagon jobs Why there's only one choice for Trump's Navy secretary Trump likely to tap business executive to head Navy: report MORE (R-Va.) said at last week’s Armed Services Committee hearing.
“Unfortunately, that’s not true for all the leadership in Congress. It’s not true for every member outside of this committee. And part of that reason is because our message has not always been spoken with clarity,” Forbes said.
There are two major reasons why the seriousness of the military cuts has not sparked action to stop sequestration.
The first is that the fiscal battles in Congress are bigger than the military, as disputes over taxes and entitlements have overtaken concern about cuts to defense spending.
“The pleas from both military leaders and civilian defense leaders, pleas from the defense industry, pleas from think tanks, have fallen on deaf ears,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “Because ultimately, that’s not the focus of Congress’s attention right now. They’re focused on other parts of the budget. ... It’s about everything but defense.”
Other problems are the nature of sequestration and the fact that the dire warnings sounded before the cuts took effect have largely not panned out — at least not yet.
Defense analysts say that the across-the-board cuts will be felt by the military and in turn the industrial base in the years ahead much more than this year.
The Pentagon was able to mitigate the impact of the cuts in 2013 by using carry-over money from the prior year and by pushing back things likes maintenance into the next year. That flexibility will be largely gone in 2014.
For defense firms, much of the work they’ve done this year has been from contracts that were approved in prior budgets, temporarily shielding them from the brunt of the across-the-board cuts.
The industry’s biggest firms have even seen their stock prices increase since sequestration began in March because they had already been preparing for a slowdown in defense spending as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.
Defense analysts say that trend won’t continue if sequestration remains on the books.
“Sequestration has barely begun,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute who consults with several defense firms. “It’ll be felt increasingly with each passing year: 2014 will be worse than 2013, and 2015 worse than 2014.”
If sequestration is not reversed, the Pentagon’s proposed 2014 budget would be cut by $52 billion.
The military brass warned at last week’s hearing that a Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR) showed the military could not carry out the current defense strategy under sequestration and risked a hollowing of its forces.
Odierno said that 85 percent of the Army’s active brigade combat teams would not be prepared for contingency requirements, and programs like the Ground Combat Vehicle and Armed Aerial Scout would be put at risk.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert warned the Navy would lose a Virginia-class submarine, a littoral combat ship and a float forward staging base, and it would have to delay the delivery of the next aircraft carrier.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said flying hours would be cut by 15 percent, and the force would consider eliminating entire fleets like the A-10 or the KC-10.
While sequestration will undoubtedly hamper the military’s capabilities, analysts say there’s more the military could do to help mitigate the blow.
Under the Budget Control Act, the military would not be subject to an across-the-board cut if the Pentagon budget is under the sequester-level spending caps. In 2014, the Pentagon did not propose a sequester-level budget, but it is preparing two budgets for 2015 in case sequestration remains.
In addition, areas like compensation and benefits have not seen major cuts. President Obama has exempted military personnel from sequestration — shifting the cuts elsewhere — and Congress has blocked the military’s attempts to raise healthcare fees or close bases.
“If they start planning to live under that cap, they can get out of the dangerous cycle they are in,” Harrison said.