It is the budget war, and the Pentagon has not given up fighting -- to the point of creating an endless stream of propaganda-like appearances and news pieces, many of them circulated by the American Forces Press Service.
These cute 2-3 minute video pieces are usually introduced by a uniformed officer or senior enlisted person, as if they were straight news and information pieces. They have been clogging the Pentagon's Daily Digest Bulletin, and my in-box, for weeks.
They were highlighted last week by my colleague Mark Thompson, of the TIME Battleland blog with the title "None Dare Call it Propaganda." They tell the sad tale of the sequester's damaging impact on the DOD health system, the suspension of tuition assistance, the loss of readiness.
Sometimes they are right -- civilian furloughs would lead to lower income for the last seven months of the year and, as a result, lower contributions to a civilian's TSP account. Sometimes they are exaggerations -- Gen. Dempsey yet again telling us military readiness will fall off a cliff, when, managed properly, it will not.
And sometimes they are pure fiction. The fiction type appeared in Saturday's Daily Digest Bulletin with the alarming headline: "Sequestration Threatens to Force Service Members to Quit."!!! This postage stamp of a video (30 seconds) culls an excerpt from the visit to Ft. Lewis-McChord of Sgt. Major Bryan Battaglia, said to be a "top advisor" to Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey.
Battaglia, on camera, says that one effect of sequester is that there will "probably" be an increase in the numbers of soldiers, sailors, and airmen "that will have to leave our force." The unnamed uniformed reporter in the piece then quotes unnamed "officials" as saying that while some force reductions are planned and others will happen by attrition, "many will simply be laid off."
It is hard to imagine a longer string of misinformation. Military personnel, their pay, and their benefits are exempt from the sequester; there ought to be no military layoffs at all as a result of the automatic cuts. Moreover, reductions in the ground force are already underway, independent of sequestration, returning the ground forces to roughly where they were before the addition of 100,000 troops to rotate through Iraq and Afghanistan.
That decline in the ground force is normal after a war, and not a result of the sequester. And it is likely to continue, as a consequence of a drawdown in the defense budget. Sequestration is not the cause; the drawdown is.
In all likelihood, the shrinking of the Army and Marines will happen by attrition, since we lose about 15 percent of Army enlistees every year. In the 1990s, the reduction of the overall military force by nearly 700,000 was accomplished largely by attrition. "Buy outs" come next, if the separation is involuntary. But pure layoffs almost never happen.
So I can only classify this report as propaganda: a message intended to inflame, but lacking analysis and seriously distorting the facts.
Make no mistake. We are in a defense drawdown. It's time to manage that process, instead of conducting silly propaganda exercises. And it's time for Secretary Hagel to bring some discipline to the American Forces Press Service, along with the rest of the Pentagon.
The Senate appropriators have been struggling all week to complete a companion bill to the one passed in the House last week, providing money for this fiscal year for DOD and several other federal agencies.
The disagreements and more than 100 potential amendments (easier to offer in the Senate than in the House) have delayed consideration into next week, but it looks likely that there will be an FY 2013 appropriations bill for the Defense Department before they adjourn for Easter.
Meanwhile, both the House and Senate Budget Committees have reported out longer-term budgetary plans -- the budget resolutions -- that look at FY 2014 and beyond.
There is a fundamental reality about what the Congress is doing, one on which Secretary Hagel must focus. The signals are clear: The Senate and the House are not going to use the appropriations bills or the budget resolutions to bail out DOD from the sequester and a long-term drawdown in the defense budget. Time to wake up and smell the coffee.
Flexibility to deal with sequestration was one such signal. The House appropriations bill did not give DOD any greater flexibility than it now has to reprogram or transfer monies between accounts. It did increase operations funding, like the administration had requested, which raises the baseline from which sequestration would happen. And it provided some legislative relief from provisions in last year's defense budget, which would have hamstrung DOD unless they got a new bill covering this year.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski made a more direct attack to provide transfer flexibility. But it failed, and the reason for the failure is significant: Unless every agency got that flexibility, it was clear that it was not going to pass. Defense was not going to get special treatment.
Signal two is in the budget resolutions. As I noted earlier this week, Chairman Ryan's bill folded on the hope that DOD might get more funding in the long-term than the Budget Control Act caps passed in August 2011. He tried that last year and it went nowhere -- it wasn't even useful to Mitt Romney, who argued in his campaign that DOD should get four percent of the Gross Domestic Product.
This year, he abandoned that trench for the next one: holding the line at the BCA level for the next 10 years. That's probably the high-water mark, because Sen. Patty Murray's proposal takes another $240 billion out of the BCA funding levels over the next ten years.
The administration is going to send up its budget, one day. Maybe in early April. And it is going to be a mythical beast that ignores the signals. It will hope for the BCA levels, which is just plain unrealistic.
Secretary Hagel is supposed to send out guidance for the Department's next Quadrennial Defense Review next week. If realism is going to set in at DOD, that guidance had better make the QDR a resource-driven effort and start looking at decisions and options at budget levels below the BCA caps. That would send the internal signal the services need to hear.
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Well, the first round in the FY 2014 budget wars has begun. The Republicans, led by Paul Ryan, have made their latest offer in the non-stop non-negotiation on taxes and spending. And when it comes to defense, the Ryan Express is true to form: full of empty boxcars and misleading data.
The goal of the proposed resolution is, as it was last year, to "protect defense." Now, to be fair, his defense number -- $560 billion -- is about $15 billion below his number in last year's resolution. Slight dose of realism there.
But basically the Ryan Express defense boxcar is empty of any contribution to deficit reduction. It seeks to reverse the sequester on defense spending, something it does not do on the domestic side, by holding the defense budget flat (last year's budget plus inflation) for the next 10 years -- as if sequester never happened and never would, either.
Not enough, says the Heritage Foundation; more than we need or the Defense Department will ever see, say I. That level of funding would give DOD more than $6 trillion over the next decade. Heck, they will be lucky to see $5.2 trillion, in my view -- or something like a 20 percent cut in constant dollars below that flat line.
And there is a really misleading number in the middle of Ryan's discussion of the sequester's impact on the defense budget. Ryan says: "Though defense is about 20 percent of the budget, it's absorbing 50 percent of the cuts." This assertion takes the Express right off the rails.
Defense is only 20 percent of the budget if he includes entitlement spending. But entitlement spending is virtually immune from sequestration. The sequester hits discretionary spending -- the funds the appropriators provide each year to the federal agencies. Defense is more than 50 percent of discretionary spending, which doesn't make the sequester formula look so unfair, after all.
But, then, Ryan wants it to look unfair, hoping the Washington data mavens will miss the subtle change.
This Express is not going to move very far, very fast. It returns us to pre-sequestration days and is on a collision course with what Sen. Patty Murray is crafting in the Senate Budget Committee as we speak. Stay tuned for the sounds of the train wreck.
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There were always two shells in the double-barreled shotgun aimed at the Defense Department. One was sequester. The other -- the one the Pentagon was really worried about -- was the continuing resolution that expires March 27.
Well, now, the Congress has just begun to unload one of the two barrels. Although sequester is still underway, the House has removed a big source of the Pentagon's "sequesteria" by passing a real appropriations bill for the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. (The rest of government will have to make do with the continuing resolution, which the bill prolongs through the end of the fiscal year.)
The bill, from the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Harold Rogers, did not attempt to fix the sequester -- as I predicted last week, that was too high a hurdle -- but it does make it easier for the Pentagon to survive. In writing a full appropriations bill, Rogers gave the Obama administration pretty much all the money it asked for in its request for crucial operational accounts. The bill increases the funds for operations and maintenance by more than $10 billion above the FY 2012 (and, thus, the continuing resolution) level.
That doesn't eliminate the sequester, but it raises the baseline from which sequester is measured for the accounts most directly affected. That gives some relief to the services, easing about 25 percent of the pain they see coming. And, who knows, if there is actually progress on the broader budget negotiations the president is lobbying for, the whole sequester thing itself might become meaningless.
That's the other big takeaway since we moved into sequester-land last Friday. Everybody is suddenly making nice. The president is phoning the Hill, even talking to Republicans. And Barbara Mikulski, the new chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, wants to write a bill similar to the House legislation, perhaps providing real appropriations language for a few more agencies and departments, rather than just prolonging the continuing resolution for everyone but DOD and Veterans Affairs.
So the March 27 deadline that I argued was the real deal may go away quietly. Some kind of appropriations bill will pass before then, in all likelihood. And the Pentagon seems likely to get the flexibility and additional funds it needs to avoid some of the damage expected from sequester. That has not prevented the "doomsday drumbeat" from continuing at DOD, with sequester threatening everything from readiness to the Asian pivot, to nuclear strategy, to band concerts. But some politics die hard.
Gee, have we entered an era of peace and budgetary harmony? Not likely. Paul Ryan's budget resolution for FY 2014 is coming next week; a Senate version from Patty Murray will follow. They will differ. And the Obama administration will send up its budget someday -- rumor has it either March 25 or April 8. And "Debt Ceiling: The Second Sequel" will hit theaters this summer. Lots of targets if anybody wants to continue to fight.
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It has been said that the definition of insanity is continuing to do the same failing thing, hoping the outcome will be different the next time. A good part of the U.S. defense industry is clearly stuck in this pattern.
CQ/Roll Call ran a piece over the weekend that lays bare the time warp some contractors and their trade associations are stuck in.
The headline talks about how the industry is facing its "moment of truth." The content makes it clear that the industry, and its spokesperson, the Aerospace Industry Association, is far, far from facing the truth about the defense budget.
If this piece is any indication, the industry continues to live in a hermetically sealed box, telling itself its own dream-like stories, and expecting to be "saved" by actors on the Hill who are in the box with them.
The reality is that sequester is now underway, not because the industry lobbying campaign failed in some technical way, as some in the industry seem to think. Millions of dollars ($27 million in campaign contributions alone), numerous road shows (McCain, Graham, and Ayotte visit carefully pre-selected friendly audiences), thousands of interviews (will Buck McKeon ever sit down?), factory-floor lobbying, visits to the Hill -- they were all done to a fare-thee-well. These are tried and true lobbying techniques, which I described at length in my 1980 study, The Iron Triangle.
But the techniques only work if the message is in tune with the voters at large and the majority of the members of Congress. The industry's problem is not technical, it is the failure to recognize we are in a defense drawdown. The budgetary party is over.
Defense budgets rise and fall in response to changing international and political conditions. And those have changed dramatically: The end of the war in Iraq and the coming end of the war in Afghanistan lower significantly the level of public and congressional attention and concern about national security.
And some in the industry seem not to have noticed that we are in a major budget battle, and have been for two years. It is a much bigger battle than the one over the defense budget; that smaller fight is a side show. And as long as some Democrats do not want to change entitlements and Republicans do not want to put tax expenditures on the table, the drive-by budgetary victim of that battle is discretionary spending.
Last time I looked, defense was about 55 percent of discretionary spending, and the third largest cause of the U.S. debt more than doubling since 2001. Of course it is on the table; does the industry still think it is going to get a pass?
The days of ever upwards on defense are over. Sequester or not, defense budgets are going down and sequester just accelerates the pace. The industry should be prepared for the projected defense budgets over the next 10 years to fall at least 20 percent in constant dollars, or roughly a trillion dollars from the current forecast of more than $5 trillion.
When the industry still tries to argue that Leon Panetta "cut" defense $487 billion over 10 years, when all he did was flatten the projected growth in defense, leaving it to grow with inflation, they are not being realistic.
When they think Rep. Harold Rogers, the appropriations chair in the House, is going to save their bacon by giving DOD flexibility on sequester, when that will never survive the Senate, they are not being realistic.
When they think just a little more money to the Aerospace Industries Association to fund more misleading studies about the jobs impact of sequester will be adequate to turn the public around, they are not being realistic.
The realistic companies have been coping for two years: attrition and layoffs, buying in capacity they used to contract out, selling divisions that are less strong in a declining market -- they know what to do. The rest of the industry seems to be howling into the wind.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
As we step onto the stage for the next act of the budgetary drama, things seem to make less and less sense. The budgetary solution shimmers on the road ahead, then evaporates as members of Congress repeatedly present legislation that either cannot pass or will not meet the needs of the other chamber.
Only the world of theater can provide the metaphors that describe where we are.
For the last two years I have been describing the budgetary point and counterpoint, the moments of high drama and unresolved outcomes, as an Indonesian shadow play. The budgetary players are actors manipulating two dimensional puppets, backlit through a white sheet. To the audience, the puppets seem real, the actions seem productive, but in the end it is a show.
Today, we have graduated from the shadow play and have entered a more surreal, or even nihilistic drama.
Might we be in a Pirandellian world, where six players (Boehner, Pelosi, Reid, McConnell, the president, and his veep) desperately try to figure out what the script is, what their roles are, and search for a playwright who can get them off the stage.
Or are we in the Sartrean world of No Exit, where nobody can get out of the room and the players all look smaller and smaller in each others' eyes?
Perhaps it is a Beckettian universe, an apparent Endgame which does not end, but is a series of meaningless interactions that end where they started, but actually went nowhere.
Or even the more nihilistic world of Macbeth, where the characters have become poor players who strut and fret their hour upon the stage and then are heard no more. Players who have been weaving a horror story in the sky that is, in the end, a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing."
As John Boehner refuses to talk, the president shouts into the Learian wind about the storm to come, and senatorial fingers point at each other, we are, perhaps watching the surrealistic world described by Ionesco in the Bald Soprano. We can only exclaim, as his players do: "How curious! How bizarre, and what a coincidence."
How interesting to watch; how little to behold; how invisible the outcome. Only dramatists could improve on this "reality."
Welcome to the Pentagon, Mr. Hagel. And, by the way, it's one more day before doomsday, before Armageddon, before the meat axe falls on the Pentagon.
Wait a minute. How could you possibly say this on your first day there: "It's the uncertainty of the planning, it's the uncertainty of the commitments, the uncertainty of what's ahead. We need to figure this out....We need to deal with this reality."
Didn't you get the memo Panetta left behind? Did you really retire the meat axe metaphor? On your first day???
How utterly refreshing! Send out a new memo. Remind the chiefs that the secretary is in charge; he is the decider. Remind them that they are to give you their best options. That they are to give you advice, not selection A on the menu, without disclosing selections B and C.
Before they rush up to the Hill once again to plead their case, remind them that they have to clear their testimony with you, with the civilian, with the secretary. That perhaps, just perhaps, a sequester, while a miserable way to run the Pentagon, may be something they need to learn to manage, not complain about.
When I read the remarks you made as secretary, my first reaction was, "how bland, there's nothing here." Then I thought about it. Yes, bland may be the best place to be -- bland, disciplined, and ready to do the job. Perhaps that's the best way to start.
Your job one is not Iran, not North Korea, not even Afghanistan. Your first job is management, and getting discipline back in the way we do our defense business. It hasn't really been there since the late 1990s. Budgets just grew like Topsy, and, with that, as Admiral Mullen said in January 2011, the building lost its ability to make the tough choices and set priorities.
Well, that's no longer an option. Budgets are already down 10 percent since FY 2010. The drawdown is here, sequester or not. So, here are your priorities:
Job one: See if you can convince the White House that flexibility is what you need, not more money. (And every federal agency should get it, not just the Pentagon.)
Job two: Work with Congress to settle the FY 2013 level of spending. If it is at the continuing resolution level, live with it.
Job three: Living with it means getting your arms quickly around the forthcoming Quadrennial Defense Review, the planning for which is just getting under way. Do the revolutionary thing: For the first time since 1993, make the review into a resource exercise. As Bernard Brodie put it years ago, "strategy wears a dollar sign."
Use that shrinking dollar sign to discipline the QDR. Strategy, yes, but within the resources we have available, not a blue-sky exercise that calls for everything the services can imagine they need. Discipline the analysis of risk in a world that poses no existential challenge to the United States. Measure carefully when and where the United States intends to engage its forces.
Use the QDR to force weapons systems choices and cost controls. Use it to shrink the back office -- the biggest in the world. Find your "bloat brush" and use it to scrub down unneeded offices, duplicative activities, excess staff. Bring the pay and benefits problems into the review and put some tough, but necessary, proposals before Congress. Make it clear to Congress that they have a choice: combat capability or an excessive infrastructure that needs another base-closing round.
The QDR is your best tool; it is there right now. The resource shrinkage is your friend; use it to put real choices on the table.
It's entirely OK with me if the rhetoric goes away, as long as the next step is quiet discipline that produces an even higher quality force that is cost-effective.
In all the festering about sequestering, one thing sticks out like a sore thumb: the Navy's decision not to deploy a second carrier to the Gulf -- a decision it is blaming on sequester.
All the other possible disruptions make sense: Civilians could see a part-time furlough, term employees might not get renewed, services contractors might be put off. But the decision to keep the USS Harry S. Truman in dock is odd.
Yes, the costs of running the Truman are part of the Navy's $59 billion operating budget, and it is operating budgets that are targeted in sequester. But that is the biggest part of the Navy budget and, by the way, the most flexible target for sequester. Defense officials have room to move funds at will in that account, even under sequester.
So why that carrier, why two days before it was due to deploy? The Navy could have kept other, less visible ships at home -- like the littoral combat ship Freedom, sailing now to much-threatened Singapore. It could have lowered readiness requirements for other parts of the fleet, or stood down a training cycle.
Rear Adm. John Kirby put it this way: "Could money have been found somewhere, anywhere, to pay for the Truman's deployment? Maybe. But without the ability to transfer money from other accounts, there aren't many places from which we could have taken it without a greater cost to readiness elsewhere."
That is nonsense. The Navy does have the flexibility Adm. Kirby says they lack -- the whole operations account is trade space under sequester. And what cost to readiness where? The Navy doesn't tell us what the cancellation of this deployment allows it to protect.
It seems likely that given overall operating tempo for carriers (one at sea, two in port), deploying two was going to stress the fleet, anyway. And the requirement for two carriers in the Gulf was, and should be, subject to review, sequester or not. So maybe the timing was just serendipitous. We were going to go to one carrier anyway, and with sequestyria the order of the day, what the heck, why not offer it up now?
The Navy could have made other choices, as Adm. Kirby acknowledges. But this one was going to get attention.
Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan D. McLearnon/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
Gordon Adams tracks the budget and the national security establishment for FP.