CSBA: Pentagon must plan for more cuts

Get ready -- here comes the sequestration monster again

As the Pentagon prepares to unveil its fiscal year 2013 budget request next week, the sequestration beast is back in the news again.

Pentagon officials would be wise to make fallback plans that would prepare for hundreds of billions in additional funding cuts in the next decade should Congress fail to enact legislation in the next 11 months to nullify the massive cuts, dubbed “sequestration,” that are set to go into effect in January 2013, a pair of prominent analysts warned Wednesday.

“The failure to plan for the possibility of further reductions [in defense spending], I think, really is a major shortfall in the new defense strategy that they laid out,” said Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assesments (CSBA) discussing the Pentagon’s soon to be released 2013 budget request this morning in Washington. “Because if you look at history, you don’t see plateaus in defense spending, it doesn’t just decline a little bit and then flatten out for the rest of the decade . . .if this decline is anything like what we’ve seen in the past three defense cycles [post Korean, Vietnam and Cold Wars], there are further cuts to come and the current strategy needs to be flexible and adaptable enough to adjust to that. The Pentagon can and they should begin preparing for the possibility of more reductions, especially sequestration, and I think if they fail to do that they run the risk of being unprepared for what is a perfectly foreseeable contingency.”

Harrison was referring to the fact that the Pentagon’s new 21st Century Defense Strategy does not seem to plan for any further funding cuts beyond the $487 billion in savings it is supposed to achieve in the next decade.

He added that the best chance to avoid sequestration died when the 12 lawmakers of the so called, deficit reduction supercommittee, failed to come up with a specific plan to reduce government spending. Now, all of Congress will have less than a year to hammer out a plan to reduce government spending in order to offset sequestration.

“You’ve got to 60 votes in the Senate and you’re subject to any number of amendments in both houses so that just complicated the process . . . if there was an easy fix, it would have been found by the supercommittee,” said Harrison.

Pentagon officials have said they are not planning a backup budget or strategy in case sequestration goes into effect next January. This may prove to be a big mistake, said CSBA’s President, Andrew Krepinevich.

“I remember the day that they [Pentagon brass] realized they [Congress] had the votes on the Hill and [the generals] had nothing and they tried to put something together quickly and come back to them but it was too late, they didn’t need to negotiate with them anymore and that’s the way things turned out back in ’86,” said Krepinevich of the Pentagon’s attempts to prevent the previous round of sequestration by refusing to cooperate with lawmakers in finding defense spending areas that could be cut out of a fear that doing so would enable the sequestration; an approach that backfired and left DoD officials with little input as to what programs could be cut, according to the think tank’s president.

“If I were secretary Panetta, I’d probably have a small group, sworn to secrecy, working something, and oftentimes small groups are where you get the best results, but he’s already gone out on a limb,” said Krepinevich. “I don’t think there’s any way he can easily say, ‘Oh well, remember what I said about throw our strategy out the window [if sequestration kicks in], no I didn’t really mean that.’”

All of this comes at a time of unprecedented change and threats to global security, said Krepinevich.

The sequestration that kicked off the post Cold War decline in Pentagon spending amounted to a 5 percent reduction in DoD budgets, verses the 10 percent cut over the next decade as laid out in the current sequestration package, according to Harrison.

“The last [major defense] drawdown started with a sequester, and it started before the threat environment started improving significantly,” said Harrison referring to the post-Cold War defense drawdown that actually began with a deficit reduction effort by Congress in fiscal year 1986, before the collapse of the Soviet Union. “I think that’s what the department should actually be worried about right now; a prolonged decline in defense spending that is not necessarily driven by a reduction in the threat environment and it could begin or be enforced by sequestration over the long term.”

Furthermore, the savings achieved by the Pentagon’s current budget reduction plan will not make much of a dent in any effort to eliminate the record federal deficit in the next ten years, added Krepinevich.