'Doomsday Clock' of Defense budget cuts nears zero hour

It’s big. It’s ugly. And it’s probably going to happen.

The first two statements have been reiterated by policy makers and Defense officials since Congress agreed to sequestration, a doomsday clock of budget cuts disproportionately targeting the Defense Department and set to strike midnight at the first of next year. The third has been roundly disavowed by military leaders; but experts are now saying it’s time to prepare for the worst.

To be sure, the facts are grim. Sequestration, the product of failure by a Supercommittee last July to root $1.2 trillion of excess spending out of the U.S. budget, means an automatic round of spending cuts, half of which, or up to $600 billion over the next decade, will fall across the Defense Department. In the best-case scenario, Defense officials would be permitted by the Office of Management and Budget to administer the cuts themselves, choosing the programs they deem appropriate for trimming. In the worst case, the ax will fall across every defense program equally, taking roughly nine percent off the top without regard to consequences.

“You cannot buy three-quarters of a ship or building,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wrote to Senate Armed Services Committee leaders John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in a letter last November, explaining the crippling effects of such a measure. Management leaders generally advocate reducing or abandoning specific activities, rather than invoking across-the-board cuts, which can harm valuable endeavors.

If the hatchet strikes indiscriminately, and at a time that does not regard Defense budget planning, Panetta said the immediate result would be employee furloughs and contract and procurement curtailment; and the end of the decade would see the smallest U.S. Air Force in history in terms of personnel, smallest ground force since 1940, and smallest number of Navy ships since 1915.

A George Mason University scholar, Dr. Stephen S. Fuller, projected on behalf of Aerospace Industries Association that the cuts, compounded with the $500 billion of cuts already taken in the FY 2013 Defense request, would mean the loss of more than one million American jobs and a 25 percent loss of  growth.

Moreover, Republican staffers with the House Armed Services Committee projected last September: the Army and the Marine Corps risk dropping 200,000 troops from 2011 levels; the Navy 50 ships or more; and the Air Force nearly 480 fighters, with additional blows to unit technological capability, humanitarian and noncombat missions, and provision for military families and dependents.

If budget reductions are restricted primarily to major acquisitions, as may happen if DoD is given its head, the outcome is still damaging, said American Enterprise Institute scholar Mackenzie Eaglen, who has written extensively about military readiness and Defense budget issues.

Following the Clinton administration’s Procurement holiday in the 1990s, the military finds itself in real need of new equipment, much of which may face cancellation if current acquisition and procurement programs are diced or eliminated, Eaglen said. “If you ask me, for the last three years, the Obama Defense budgets have raised the acquisition accounts disproportionately,” Eaglen said. “The cut in the program side now is tending to hurt programs that are safety nets to bridge the military for the next conflict.”

President Barack Obama set the trend with his first budget proposal in 2009, proposing that over $8 billion in cuts, or half of overall budget reductions, come from a Defense Department that was waging two wars and would soon embark on a massive troop surge in Afghanistan.

Travis Korson, a spokesman for the nonprofit For the Common Defense, said hope remains among the experts that Congress will tackle sequestration during the November lame duck session, perhaps seizing on one of the proposed solutions: passage of bills in the House and Senate that would divert cuts from DoD, phasing out 10 percent of federal workers over the next decade instead; or considering the budget of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which recently cleared the House and spares Defense of sequestration while restoring additional funding.

The first option, however, appears hopelessly partisan, without a single Democratic co-sponsor in the Senate or House; and the second, the Ryan Budget, is not expected to pass the Senate. Obama has publicly made clear his intentions to veto any Republican attempt to avoid the sequester.

A director at the Center for Defense Information, Winslow Wheeler, was less optimistic that any solution would be found.

“I regard sequestration as virtually inevitable. We’re going to hear lots of noise, and I don’t expect anything to happen,” he said. “People think the lame duck Congress will transform itself into a rational bunch of statesmen. I don’t see that happening at all.”

“Hope springs eternal, contrary to all headlines, that the Big Deal can be made,” Eaglen said. “There’s really so much (in sequestration) for everyone to hate.”