The leaders of the US Senate Armed Services Committee asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel two months ago to explain what would happen if sequestration became permanent.
Hagel responded last week with the same scenario laid out by his predecessor: cutting another $52 billion from defense in 2014 — and again in each of the coming eight years — will devastate US combat capabilities.
Readiness is already decaying, Hagel said, with non-essential training suspended, maintenance postponed and new equipment programs cut.
Such deep cuts will hollow out the world’s best military, he added, begging lawmakers to scrap sequestration, set aside parochial interests and cut unnecessary programs and bases as he requested in his 2014 budget.
He’s right. Inflexible cuts are already damaging military capabilities, damage that will only worsen over time.
But Hagel’s letter was devoid of the findings of his Strategic Choices and Management Review that he launched upon taking office as a way of mapping the impact of sequestration, identifying necessary tradeoffs and considering structural reforms.
The review was completed more than a month ago and briefed to President Barack Obama last week.
What’s more vexing is that Hagel failed to call for flexibility to make his cuts strategically, saying that won’t make a difference; it’s the magnitude of the cuts that are unacceptable.
That’s simply not credible.
First, a succession of defense leaders has repeatedly said more and smarter cuts can be made if they have the ability to make hard choices themselves, rather than accepting arbitrary, across-the-board cuts.
Second, more than half of the defense budget is for personnel and personnel-related expenses that must be reformed to free resources and pay for capability and new weapons.
There remains plenty of waste in the Pentagon budget
Only weeks ago, Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale said roughly 700,000 civilian contractors work for the Pentagon in addition to 800,000 civilians, who together outnumber the nation’s 1.4 million active-duty troops.
Clearly, there’s room to slash the Defense Department’s bloated overhead structure.
The problem is, the White House wants to deny flexibility in making cuts so that the damage will enable the administration to use defense as a bargaining chip to compel Republicans to end sequestration.
It’s an exercise in futility, and it’s time to stop playing politics with national security. The administration would be wise to abandon its contradictory approach: It wants defense reform, but continues to keep DoD in a straitjacket, without the flexibility to make the best moves to get there.
Sequestration — or the cuts it is driving — is here to stay because of political gridlock; and the end of two wars and the open spigot of defense spending means the Pentagon cannot escape cuts.
Allowing such dumb cuts to undermine military capabilities, though, is a grave mistake. Giving the Pentagon hard budget targets and the flexibility and authority to make thoughtful cuts must become a priority.
If the White House and lawmakers fail to lead, then it’s up to the senior military officers to craft and widely market honest recommendations that deliver maximum capability for available resources, including targeted personnel reforms.
What’s at stake is America’s ability to protect itself, its interests and its allies and to shape global events.