An 800-pound guerrilla is about to descend on us, and if it has the impact many observers believe, it could do our armed forces irreparable harm. This comes in the form of massive cuts in defense spending amid the possibility of an armed conflict with countries like Iran, North Korea and Syria, not to mention the terrorist organizations ar-rayed against us.
What makes the situation worse is that the Obama administration won’t say what kinds of cuts it wants to make. All that is known is that the Pentagon will have to absorb $500 billion in automatic cuts if Congress cannot agree on how to trim $1.2 trillion in government spending. The cuts, part of a process of “sequestration,” would come on top of the already mandated $487 billion in reductions absorbed by the Pentagon — and will not affect personnel pay.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says such cuts, scheduled to begin Jan 2, will do incalculable damage to our military. He calls it “ mindless.”
At least Panetta has adopted a less confrontational style than former Defense Secretary Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who excluded the military from many discussions. Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno said Panetta “has been very transparent with the chiefs and allowed us to participate much more than we have in the past.”
This is hardly the time to deplete the military. Even now it does not appear to have sufficient weapons systems to present a threat to the Chinese, who are steadily expanding their influence.
This sequestration results from congressional stupidity. The White House’s acting budget chief, Jeff Zients, called the approach Congress is using “a blunt, indiscriminate instrument designed to force congressional action on achieving a balanced deficit reduction plan.” He hit the nail on the head when he told the House Armed Services Committee, “It is not the responsible way for our national government to achieve deficit reduction.”
The normal approach is for members of both parties to get together away from the Washington spotlight and work out a compromise. In the past, neither side would get all it wanted, but there would be a dollar amount that both sides would support.
Now, however, a compromise seems unlikely. Democrats will not agree on a budget to spare the military unless Republicans agree to increase tax rates on high-income earners. Republicans reject any plan that increases taxes. The lines have been drawn, and neither side is about to compromise with the election less than two months away.
One aspect of the sequestration that has received little attention is the impact it would have on manufacturers and on communities like Manhattan and Junction City. The best one could hope for in manufacturing would be a lengthening of the production scale. One estimate projects cuts of about 10,000 jobs in the intelligence community alone. That would result in a number of layoffs to accommodate the slower production schedule. Some firms have already begun to worry that they may be forced to issue pink slips 60 days prior to letting workers go. That could mean handing them out just before the election, although the Obama administration has said that won’t be necessary.
Should the cuts go into effect, every component of the military (except personnel), will be vulnerable. Bases could be closed, units deactivated and both the research and production of future weapon systems pushed aside.
Panetta had it right when he said, “I think what both Republicans and Democrats need to do — and the leaders of both sides — is to recognize that if sequester takes place, it would be disastrous for our national security and, very frankly, for a lot of very important domestic programs… They have a responsibility to come together and find the money necessary to detrigger sequester.”
In the meantime, Panetta has avoided cutting major weapons programs and initiated bold moves aimed at remaking the military for the new era. Panetta has done the right thing; the first time one lists a defense program open for cuts, it could be only a matter of time until the cuts arrive.
I suspect that both sides are waiting for the election. Whoever wins will have to come up with considerable money — quickly.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor, and member of the Council of Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.