Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey have been quick off the mark in pointing out that sequestration would be “unacceptable” and “very high risk.” Various military service leaders have said that, if sequestration does come to pass, the country would have to “rethink” its entire military strategy. But the corollary to such criticism has been that the cuts already in law, though painful, can be “managed.” The Air Force’s second-ranking general told the House Armed Services Committee that “we will not go hollow” despite the $400 billion cut provided in the Budget Control Act.
But there’s good reason to wonder whether this is right. To begin with, the size of the current cut has grown. Last week Reuters reported that the level of defense reductions has increased to $489 billion, after the Obama administration decided to exempt veterans’ benefits from any cuts whatsoever. The White House is making a rather predictable political judgment that cutting Veterans budgets would cause them more pain than gutting defense budgets.
A better understanding of how the military is already being weakened can be found in a memo prepared for House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon. Although most news reports about the memo focused on the deep, indeed shocking, cuts in force structure that may result from sequestration, no less important was the memo’s accounting of the long-term effect on the military of current funding under the Budget Control Act.
The McKeon memo does not specify with equal precision the budget’s effects on future weapons programs, but there’s no reason to think such effects won’t be commensurate to the service cuts. The committee is correct to point out that every modernization program is “at risk”; the only real question is the level of risk. We are told that sequestration will create “unacceptable” risk, but because the Pentagon has yet to fully reckon the consequences of the current cuts, or even to reckon their overall size, there’s no way of knowing how much damage has already been done. So the service chiefs’ assurances that all is well should be treated with a heavy dose of skepticism.
The real problem is not the mechanism of sequestration, brutal though it may be. The fact is that the United States has been in an extended “defense drawdown” since the end of the Cold War, reaping substantial “peace dividends” throughout the Clinton years, during the Obama years, and now under the Budget Control Act. Indeed, more than $800 billion has been cut from planned spending in just the past three years. It’s time to say “enough” and to refuse not only sequestration but also a deal that avoids automatic reductions by substituting “just” a couple of hundred billion more in defense cuts. These are “savings” the nation cannot afford.
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