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Commentary: Why Sequestration Would Make USN Too Small

Mar. 17, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By Michael O’Hanlon   |   Comments
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To my mind, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), released in early March along with the formal budget request to Congress for 2015, is a perfectly reasonable document. Some of the key features — an active-duty Army of 450,000, for example, or a Navy aiming to get closer to 300 ships rather than to keep declining from the current 285 — make good strategic sense.

However, these ideas will only be sustainable if the Pentagon, and the country more generally, are able to escape the looming ax of the next possible sequester. Some think we have until 2016 to address such a specter, which seems far off. But that’s not quite right. The fiscal 2015 budget under the recent deal worked out by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray would be a virtual sequester, at least in overall dollar terms, since it would exceed the previously planned sequester figure by only $9 billion, or less than 2 percent of total DoD spending for that year. And fiscal 2015 is only half a year away.

It is crucial that the Pentagon find an effective way, therefore, to argue its case. Why is cutting to 450,000 soldiers acceptable, whereas cutting to 420,000 or less unacceptable? Why is a Navy of, say, 300 ships, as we may attain in a few years under the administration’s preferred plan, considered good but a Navy of about 250 ships too few?

Frankly, I found the QDR confusing in how it wrestled with these questions. It ticked off some additional cuts that would result under sequestration but provided little strategic context or operational specificity about what they would mean.

Admittedly, it is a tall order to accomplish such analysis within a relatively short government document that needs to cover many issues in passing and avoid overly provocative statements. Still, the QDR falls short of providing arguments that a skeptical reader, or member of Congress, might find persuasive in deciding whether to oppose the pending sequester.

Here’s one practical way to think about the Navy and possible cuts to the Navy under sequestration. Examine the distinction between a fleet of 250 to 270 ships (the sustainable range under sequestration) or around 300 ships (roughly the sustainable number if the administration gets more dollars and gets its way).

Most people of both parties support the logic of the “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific, including its military aspects. The biggest of those military initiatives was the decision, announced by former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Shangri-La dialogue in June 2012, to base 60 percent of the US Navy in the broader region by 2020, in contrast to the historical norm of 50 percent. Sounds reasonable, right?

But it is not so simple. If the overall Navy fleet shrinks too much, the net number of ships in the region could decline despite the rebalance. The decision to increase emphasis on the Pacific region could be trumped by the effects of having a substantially smaller Navy. And that would effectively undo the rebalance.

In fact, ships based in the broader Asia-Pacific region will not always be used there. They can also go to the Arabian Gulf from California, say, and surely will do so. So under the new approach, we won’t really increase the fraction of ships focused on deployments in the Asia-Pacific from 50 percent to 60 percent. A more realistic assessment is that perhaps 55 percent of the future US Navy will support the rebalance.

So, let’s do the math. At a minimum, we need a Navy big enough that 55 percent of its future capacity exceeds 50 percent of its former capacity. Today, we have about 145 ships out of the Navy’s total 285 in the Asia-Pacific region. But if the future fleet drops below 260 ships, then 55 percent of its ships will number less than that. The rebalance will have been neutered because, even if we try to deploy more to the Asia-Pacific, we won’t have a big enough fleet to make the absolute numbers of ships in that region increase or even remain steady.

Of course, many other considerations should enter into how we develop future force requirements. But one minimal standard is that our future Navy not decline in size by much more than 5 percent relative to plans. That is one concrete way to explain why some budget cuts may be acceptable, whereas sequestration would simply be too steep and too severe.

Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow and director of research, Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, Washington.

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