The central feature of the Pentagon’s Strategic Choices and Management Review is to show, with brutal clarity, exactly what capabilities the United States must sacrifice, depending on how much funding it loses.
The review considered three scenarios — cuts of $100 billion, $300 billion or $500 billion over a decade. The difference between the three is the difference between a trim to existing defense plans and a devastating blow to US military capabilities from which it will take years, or perhaps decades, to recover.
Regardless of which path Congress and President Barack Obama ultimately choose, however, cutting $37 billion this fiscal year and another $52 billion in 2014 — and for the eight years thereafter — means disproportionate cuts to readiness, acquisition, and research and development accounts in the early years, because personnel cuts are initially exempt from sequestration and, once implemented, take longer to yield needed savings.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has rightly argued since taking office that the Pentagon must reform and reshape itself for this new reality. Retaining capability while enduring a decade of deep and inflexible spending cuts must be the focus of every leader.
Two weeks ago, Hagel took a bold first step in that direction: He ordered Pentagon and military staffs cut by 20 percent over the coming five years. Last week, he told the Veterans of Foreign Wars annual convention that America’s military can remain strong, despite declining budgets — but only if it makes the right choices.
That means prioritizing missions, eliminating unnecessary staffs and headquarters, slashing overhead, shuttering excess facilities and eliminating expensive but non-essential benefits, all so that money remains available to invest in vital readiness, training and modernization.
The Pentagon cannot afford to sacrifice readiness and modernization to protect jobs, Hagel said. Half of the Defense Department’s budget goes to people, both military and civilian, so without significant personnel reforms, the United States risks ending up with a tiny, well-compensated force that’s poorly trained and equipped.
That won’t work.
Still, reform takes time, and the Pentagon is short on that commodity. No matter how critical, reform won’t yield short-term savings on the scale sequestration demands. The skills that distinguish the US military as among the world’s finest will atrophy as planes, vehicles and ships sit idle and investment in near-term maintenance and future systems acquisition stalls.
Meanwhile, China is flexing its muscles, ratcheting up pressure on neighbors to win territorial concessions and is emboldened by the sense that America doesn’t have the resources to make good on its Asia pivot.
Congressional intransigence doesn’t help. By reflexively opposing almost any reform proposed by DoD, lawmakers are undermining not just American military power, but also its influence and power overseas.
Yes, Washington does have to rein in record US debt. And yes, defense spending can be cut. But doing both requires better balance and a more thoughtful approach in order to ensure good decisions. If you need to lose weight, you can diet or chop off your leg. Both will achieve the goal, but while amputation produces faster results, it also leaves you permanently debilitated.
Indeed, the mere perception that US capabilities are declining — let alone such a reality — may embolden competitors and adversaries to risk conflict under the assumption that Washington is either too weak, too broke or too unwilling to respond.