Accepting Austerity

The Right Way to Cut Defense

Strategic reserve: a member of the U.S. National Guard training in Georgia, April 2013.
Strategic reserve: a member of the U.S. National Guard training in Georgia, April 2013. (The National Guard)

On March 1, 2013, the U.S. Department of Defense lost $37 billion overnight to sequestration. The cut marked the first wave of a series of planned cutbacks that will shrink future budgets across the federal government by about $1 trillion over nine years. The reductions had been set in motion back in 2011, when a special “super committee” established by the Budget Control Act (BCA) failed to reach a deficit-reduction agreement, triggering automatic cuts designed to punish both parties. Unlike other budget cuts, sequestration is implemented across the board, taking the same percentage bite out of every account. Except for the decision to spare the military personnel account that provides the pay for the United States’ men and women in uniform, defense leaders had no choice about where to take the 2013 cuts. And so, with just seven months left in the fiscal year, sequestration abruptly erased about eight percent of the the Pentagon’s budget for the year.

Not surprisingly, sequestration has infuriated defense officials. On August 1, 2013, with the start of the 2014 fiscal year just two months away, Ashton Carter, the deputy secretary of defense, and James Winnefeld, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified that another year of sequestration would bring chaos, waste, and lasting disruption.

It didn’t have to be this way. President Barack Obama signed the BCA in August 2011. By the end of the year, the super committee established to craft a fiscal bargain that would replace the nine-year automatic budget cuts embedded in the bill had crashed and burned, triggering the nine-year budget cuts that began with the March 2013 sequestration. So the White House and the Department of Defense have had two years to develop a national security strategy consistent with the new budget limits, design forces and programs to match that strategy, point the Pentagon down a somewhat less abrupt budgetary glide path, and institute measures to smooth the downsizing. Instead of doing any of these things, the Obama administration and the Department of Defense have played a protracted game of chicken with Congress. All that time was wasted.

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