Center for Strategic Communication

As the sequestration clock continues to tick, the opportunity for a legitimate compromise in Congress appears to be diminishing. Secretary Panetta and JSC Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey recently pleaded for a solution with Congress claiming sequestration would significantly reduce the ability of military personnel to conduct operations. Panetta also stated:

“”Too often today, the nation’s problems are held hostage to the unwillingness to find consensus and compromise, and in the face of that gridlock, artificial devices like sequester are resorted to in order to somehow force action. But in the absence of action, sequestration could very well threaten the programs critical to our nation’s security.”

The DOD, however, has failed to identify which programs are critical and which programs can be expendable. While no government department wishes to see budgets slashed, the DOD has been particularly resistant to austerity due to the implications of cuts on national security and contingency operations in Afghanistan.

Sequestration would result in automatic cuts for the defense department and would require 10% cuts across the board. Some analysts have argued that reductions in defense spending won’t hurt economic growth, and even some industry leaders have accepted that the current fiscal climate demands real reductions in defense spending.  The problem with sequestration is not the budget cuts, but the associated uncertainty. Sequestration won’t distinguish between which programs are vital and which programs are expendable. This creates serious obstacles in the ability to develop a feasible strategy for defense policy.

The defense industry appears to be developing a growing sense of urgency and are understandably requesting assistance for planning from the DOD as to how cuts will affect their programs.

The sequester would also trigger billions of dollars in fees due to termination agreements with contractors, and as a result would be an inefficient way to conduct fiscal austerity. Perhaps most importantly, it would be an inefficient way to conduct long-term defense strategy.

The Big Picture 

The sequester indicates the serious institutional difficulties in matching budgetary priorities with national security strategy. The fiscal realities of the United States demand that the DOD share a reasonable burden of cuts, however, the DOD has failed to provide Congress or industry a solid assessment of how sequestration would affect programs and military operations, other than it would be really bad.

The resolution ultimately lies with Congress in producing a budget, and it should receive the majority of the blame if the sequester is to take effect.  In the mean time, however, a measure by the DOD to provide a detailed outline of the strategic risks associated with the sequester would work to their benefit and of industry as well.

Panetta’s meeting with industry leaders is certainly a positive start, but a detailed report for Congress on how each cut will affect programs and the Pentagon’s realistic needs for the next decade would be preferable as well. Such an assessment, however, appears to be unlikely. An assessment by the Office of Management and Budget appears to be equally unlikely, which has created a great deal of frustration for those in Congress who also want answers on sequestration.

Pessimism and gridlock on Capitol indicates that the DOD should be prepared for sequestration in a worst case scenario. Collectively, the administration and DOD could use the threat of sequester to provide a serious outline how budget cuts would reduce military capabilities.

There are three fundamental questions the DOD should answer in the event of impending cuts.

1)      How will each program be affected by sequestration?

2)      Which programs should receive priority?

3)      How do these programs enhance national security and defense?

These are difficult questions to answer, and no one should minimize the difficulties in the implementation of policy and operations for national defense.  However, as the war in Afghanistan is in exit mode, the Pentagon is clearly in a scramble to justify one of the largest federal budgets and to formulate policies which adequately match capabilities against threats.

The defense budget’s ambiguity has also made it nearly impossible to provide a realistic assessment of how $500 billion in cuts over 10 years will affect long-term national security strategy. Ultimately, the effect of sequestration on long-term strategy may be the most relevant aspect of the impending cuts, but the Pentagon only vaguely asserts it will “hollow out” defense. General Martin Dempsey also commented:

“Our strategy and the budget constitute a carefully balanced set of choices.  The decisions we made are not about doing more with less, or certainly not less with less. ”

As the effects of sequestration will have a very serious impact on national security, doing more with less may turn out to be a serious obstacle for the Pentagon. And defining those “choices” will be equally important as the war in Afghanistan winds down.  Facts and strategic assessment of austerity’s implications in the next decade are desperately needed.

If you would like to read more, check out my recent post on sequestration’s affect on long-term strategy.

Stay tuned for the American Security Project’s continued analysis of defense transformation and how sequestration will affect long-term national security policy.