In the absence of the Congress -- now in recess -- the Army, Navy, and Air Force have continued to litter the universe with more confetti about sequester. For those of you familiar with Carl Builder's masterful study of military service culture, these recently released documents are a fascinating look at the different cultures of the three largest military services.
The Army document is classic Army. Fifty-five pages long, it marches a division, step-by-step, through the purported impact of sequester on every state in the Union. It is an overwhelming show of force, as recommended years ago by Colin Powell. And it says these terrible things will happen: "every base will be affected," and the Army "is taking action."
The Navy document is more succinct -- only 11 pages. And it is more honest. While it describes impacts, it also calls them "representative in nature" and "potential." It does not say these things are being implemented and it more carefully lays out the assumptions that lead to the impact. The tone is cautious and independent, like the Navy.
And the Air Force document is classic Air Force: one page, blunt, and in your face. A simple map of the United States, with data, state-by-state, of civilian furlough numbers, lost pay, and facility projects cancelled. No text, just the facts, ma'am. Like a quick air strike on a communications node -- accurate kill, as needed.
The trouble is, of course, that sequester has not happened. The secretary has not made choices; priorities have not been allocated. But the services have been let out to make the worst case they can. Only the Navy is straightforward in saying these are "potential" impacts, and that is true not only because sequester has not happened, but because the decisions and prioritizations have not been made.
Meanwhile, one wonders why these things are the outcome, and not others, in case of sequester. For example, Tom Vanden Brook in yesterday's USA Today highlights serious doubts about the Army's $250 million program to put otherwise inadequately employed social scientists out in the battlefield to assess the "human terrain." The program is not clearly value-added, commanders think, and internal Army documents apparently reveal incidents of sexual harassment, racism, and possible fraud.
The program is doubtless funded in the same operational accounts where cuts would purportedly hit the same civil servants the Army sequester briefing warns about. In the priority-setting process, it is a perfect candidate for elimination, and all the services have the flexibility, under sequester, to make such a choice. I would readily trade a civil servant's furlough for getting rid of social scientists used in this way.
The underlying problem is that the service briefings are not plans, they betray no underlying decision-making or prioritization. They are political documents, intended to instill fear and to bring politicians to the table.
And they are not working; for all the cacophony, almost everybody in Washington thinks we will blow through National Sequester Day (March 1), issue furlough notices (DOD's go out today, in advance of sequester), and lay out a menu of cut-backs.
Then the Congress will spend March focusing on the real issue: FY 2013 spending levels and what happens by March 27, when the current continuing resolution expires. Sequester madness will step aside, and the real budget battle will get under way.
If the services are lucky, they will get funding pretty much like the past fiscal year. And Congress may provide them with more flexibility to allocate those funds than the sequester would. Then the services would have to do the real management job, instead of the Washington Monument closings they are sending out now.
U.S. Air Force
Everyone is talking about the proposal Senate Democrats are putting forward to avert a budget sequester on March 1. No text has been released yet, but this fact sheet makes it clear that this allegedly bold proposal is simply a duck. It avoids the key issues in sequestration -- especially the need for discipline in the defense budget.
Apparently, the bill would change both revenue and spending plans to provide the $110 billion in budget savings the original sequester would impose this fiscal year were it to go into effect. Half of that amount would come from changes to the tax code -- notably from adopting the so-called Buffett Rule, which would tax income in excess of $1 million at a rate of at least 30 percent.
The other half of the savings -- $54 billion -- would come from equal cuts to defense and non-defense agencies. That should mean $27 billion in defense savings this year. That would be a significant reduction, though less than the $42.5 billion cut the sequester would compel.
But, there is a dirty little secret in the bill: Neither the $27 billion in defense savings nor the $27 billion in non-defense savings would happen this fiscal year. Instead, the bill sneaks those reductions into future budgets, just delaying the pain. The defense budget would not be cut at all in 2013.
If you don't believe me, read the language in the fact sheet (I italicized the key parts):
The American Family Economic Protection Act fully protects the Defense Department, like other Federal agencies, from sequestration until January 2, 2014. Throughout 2013, no sequester would be implemented, and the existing limits on security-related spending would continue to apply.
Twenty-five percent of the overall costs of suspending sequestration would be offset by very modest reductions in the overall level of defense spending in the future. These reductions would total $27.5 billion, or 0.5 percent of defense spending between Fiscal Years 2013 and 2021. The reductions would not begin until Fiscal Year 2015, when the war in Afghanistan is expected to end.
The cuts would be spread out in relatively modest increments over 7 years, through Fiscal Year 2021, and would allow defense spending to increase by at least two percent in each of those years, even after the reduction. The reduction would be about $3 billion in Fiscal Years 2015 and 2016, and then would rise slowly to a high of about $5 billion in Fiscal Year 2021.
This is a pure, unadulterated duck on disciplining defense this year -- a larger version of what Congress did last month, when it ostensibly cut defense $12 billion in FY 2013 as it deferred sequestration to March 1. In truth, it postponed $8 billion of that reduction into FY 2014. (And why would defense go up later on, according to the fact sheet? Because we have not yet cut defense. The Panetta projected budgets continue to grow; his "cuts" were from even higher projected growth.)
There is no running away from the reality that disciplining spending means actually, well, disciplining spending. And the Defense Department faces this kind of discipline this year. The Democratic proposal is going nowhere; it will not even pass the Senate. But it doesn't confront the budgetary reality; it looks, walks, and quacks like a duck.
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The big weapons have moved in. On February 13, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff went over the top of the trench, grabbed the biggest artillery piece he could find and charged the enemy, saying a sequester of the defense budget on March 1 would "upend our defense strategy," leave the U.S. open to "coercion," and force us to "break our commitments" to the troops, the defense industry, and our friends and allies.
What is this, a Saturday Night Live sketch? No, just another piece in the confetti-laden ticker tape parade the service chiefs and the chairman are leading around the friendly confines of the Armed Services Committees to beat back a sequester on defense.
He may convince the already-convinced members of the committee, but the almost comic rhetoric should not fool anyone else.
Let me say it again: Sequester would pose serious management challenges to the Department of Defense, no doubt about it. But the U.S. military is a dominant force, with few challengers. It is the only force capable of global sailing, flying, and deployment. The only one with global logistics, communications, intelligence, transportation, and infrastructure. It costs five times the that of the Chinese military, and accounts for 40 percent of the spending on all world militaries combined. It spends more money today than it ever has, in constant dollars.
They are an awesome bunch, and everyone around the world knows it. There is no way a sequester would leave this force or the country open to coercion.
Losing 10 percent of the planned resources in one year will change none of that. Properly managed, even sequester would be survivable, leaving a dominant military capability. Nobody has to revisit strategy -- the pivot to the Pacific would happen anyway, and, frankly, is more a matter of moving things around than adding new military kit to the region. We have left and are leaving the two big combat operations, substantially increasing planning flexibility -- every other deployment (Sahel, Horn of Africa, Philippines) involves a tiny fraction of the overall force.
And as for that "commitment" observation, pay and benefits for the troops are untouched by sequester, leaving the commitments intact. And the industry figured out two years ago that the defense budget was going down. They have been consolidating capacity, shrinking the workforce, bringing subcontracted business in house, selling assets for two years. Only this year are these long-term, sensible decisions being blamed on sequester; they were already happening and will continue to happen, with or without sequester.
And our friends and allies? In Europe they have already figured out that defense requirements need to be balanced off against broader fiscal and social needs, as we are only now doing today. And in Asia, a number of allies are starting to do exactly what we have been asking them to do for decades: Assume more responsibility for their own security. The United States will still be around, nonetheless.
But we must be in another act of the budget battle. The military has been pushed into the point of the spear as part of the pressure to get to a deal, so hyperbole commands the stage. Personally, I can't wait for the show to end.
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The president warned about sequester last night in his State of the Union. The service chiefs are marching around Capitol Hill crying doom and gloom. The defense industry is once again decrying the impact of sequester on employment and the economy (well, their part of the economy). As we approach March 1, the cacophony on sequester is growing. And, after more than a month of being asked by the White House to keep silent, the domestic agencies, which are actually seriously affected, have begun to speak out.
Last week, the White House released a "fact sheet" about the impact of sequester on jobs, families, and the economy, which, rightly, made absolutely no mention of the impact on defense. The domestic impacts would be severe: For a time the FBI would lose the equivalent of 1,000 agents; the Justice Department would lose lawyers; the Food and Drug Administration would lose staff who approve new drugs and ensure food safety; the International Trade Administration would lose export promoters; the IRS would lose tax responders during tax season; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would pull inspectors for a time. You get the idea.
These consequences are the result of anticipated furloughs of federal employees. Asked if he could give a precise number of federal employees and contractors who would be affected, the controller of the Office of Management and Budget said he could not: "I just know it's high; it's in the hundreds of thousands of employees, but I don't have a specific estimate."
These are serious impacts and they hit domestic agencies particularly hard because non-defense agencies are personnel heavy. Non-defense agencies employ roughly 2 million civilians, and buy about 25 percent of what the entire federal government buys. The Department of Defense, on the other hand, employs only 800,000 civilians, and consumes the other three-fourths of total government buying. Yes, DOD has a lot of people, but the wages and benefits of the 1.5 million people in uniform are exempt from sequester. Nearly a third of the defense budget is tied up in contracts for research and production performed in the private sector. While sequester would reduce future funds for contracts, the automatic cuts will not affect dollars that are already obligated.
For DOD, this means sequester hits civilian personnel and services contractors, who often work on so-called Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contracts. (That means the agency buying the service has the capacity to ask the contractor to do work, but it is never clear when or for how much, making IDIQ contracts a likely target for sequester.) At the Pentagon, this will mean reduced funding for operations and maintenance.
That account includes the DOD "back office," which is both large and filled with duplicative efforts. Defense officials can do things like eliminating separate surgeons-general and administrative stovepipes for health programs before making dramatic flag-waving decisions like delaying the deployment of a second carrier to the Gulf. And the sequester rules make such a choice entirely possible; the building has known it for months.
For the domestic agencies, it is tougher sledding. While Social Security and Medicare are exempt from sequester -- so benefits will continue -- the staff providing programs and benefits will be spending an unpaid series of Fridays at home. The things Americans have become used to getting from their government -- services, for the most part -- are also likely to slow down.
Until last week, we only heard the complaints from DOD, the agency with the largest exemption and the greatest flexibility in managing sequester. As I suggested last week, the administration seemed to figure that the squealing from DOD will get Republican attention and end the sequester sideshow. Perhaps now they are broadening the focus to areas of more severe consequence, to help focus Congress on negotiating a budget solution.
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You can see it in the charts.
Ships won't sail, tanks won't be repaired, troops at the front won't have bullets. Summing it all up, America will become a second-rate power, the outgoing secretary of defense said at Georgetown last week.
On Tuesday, the service chiefs will scatter themselves all over the Hill to spread the gospel, telling the Senate and House Armed Services Committees how truly, truly awful it will be if they lose 10 percent of their budget this year.
It's overwhelming. Or, it was, until I started reading a paper delivered by Richard Kohn, professor emeritus from the University of North Carolina, former Air Force historian, and one of the most respected students of civil-military relations in the country.
Kohn makes a fundamental point: The military today is exceeding its mandate in publicly lobbying for its budgets and intruding into the debate over the U.S. role in global security. He argues that "this willingness -- indeed, in some cases eagerness -- to strive to shape public opinion and thereby affect decisions and policy outcomes is a dangerous development for the U.S. military and is extraordinarily corrosive of civilian control."
Kohn asks the tough question: "Is it proper for the four services, the regional commanders, or the Joint Chiefs every year to advocate to the public directly their needs for ships, airplanes, divisions, troops, and other resources, or their views on what percentage of the nation's economy should go to defense as opposed to other priorities?"
Put another way, in the policy universe, the military service chiefs are risking their credibility by such naked promotion of their budgets and service interests. Yes, and they've been doing so for about 15 years now, encouraged by a Congress fighting partisan warfare.
In fact, what stimulated me was a footnote in the article -- a footnote that sounded so strikingly familiar that today began to feel like déjà vu all over again, as Yogi would say. It was the headlines that grabbed me: "New Commandant Intends to Push for More Resources for Pentagon"; "Marine Commandant Calls for Defense Spending Increase"; "Outgoing 6th Fleet Commander Warns Fleet Size is Too Small"; "Admiral: Navy Pales to Past One"; "Senior Navy Officers: ‘We Need More Ships, Planes, Subs'"; "Budgets Need to Support Our Tasking"; "Help Keep This The Greatest Navy." They're all from 1999 or 2000.
Sound familiar? Listen to what the service chiefs say Tuesday and it will. There is never enough; the budget can never be cut; we are losing our edge; sequester will weaken our military power.
The secretary should have reined them in, not unleashed them. The test for the services is not how well they advocate, nor how thoroughly they exaggerate the consequences of choice-making, nor how public they become. The test for the next secretary is how truthful he will be and how firmly he sets the tone for the department and the service chiefs. And the test for Congress is whether it can set partisanship aside and stop pulling the service chiefs into the fray as battering rams to flail away at the other side.
One can always hope.
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Former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy weighed in Tuesday on the debate over the defense budget. While her comments are useful, her recommendations would not really help the Pentagon deal with reductions that could be 20 percent below the spending levels it had projected for the next 10 years. The problem is that to cut defense, you need to actually cut defense -- including things Flournoy says should be untouchable.
First things first. Flournoy writes that we have a terrible post-war record on defense drawdowns. "Almost all have resulted in a ‘hollow force' -- too much force structure with too little investment in people, readiness and modernization," she writes. Secretary Gates said the same thing; so did Secretary Panetta. Fortunately, this is not right; fortunately, because it is possible to manage a drawdown successfully.
As someone who was there for the last one, in the 1990s (as was Flournoy, actually), I can vouch that the management of that drawdown, including readiness investments, did not lead to a hollow force. The drawdown of the 1990s was begun by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell. It established a smaller force, invested in the readiness of that force, and, even with a "procurement holiday" (appropriate after Reagan had filled the services' hardware coffers in the 1980s), continued to equip it well. (The C-17 and F-22, for example, both moved along to production.)
The 1970s drawdown did have a readiness problem, exacerbated by the transition from a conscript to an all-volunteer force. It remained, however, a globally dominant force. And the Eisenhower draw-down did not sacrifice readiness; it chose to base U.S. defense strategy on strategic nuclear capabilities, with a smaller ground force. But it was ready, not hollow.
Regardless, Flournoy's prescriptions for managing the drawdown now under way will not get us to where the budget is going. She says past drawdowns failed "because the easiest way to reduce Defense Department spending quickly is to enact across-the-board cuts in military end-strength, operations and maintenance, and procurement -- solving the budget problem on the back of the force rather than on the department writ large." The problem is that these are precisely the categories of spending that must be drawn down. They constitute, after all, 96 percent of the defense budget. If you take those accounts off the table, it is not clear what is left -- they are "the department writ large." That's why they are cut in a typical drawdown -- and why they should be cut now.
Flournoy's suggestions for where to cut are good, but they won't get us very far toward managing the drawdown:
In the end, a smart drawdown requires that we address those parts of the budget that Flournoy takes off the table. We need a smaller force, procurement priorities, and serious constraints and priority-setting in the operations and maintenance account. Now that would be a realistic drawdown!
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You think the Pentagon would learn. But, no, there may even be a payoff in being ill-behaved on your spending: when you get into deep trouble you made for yourself, you just take yourself hostage and threaten to pull the trigger.
Two years ago, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen warned that "the budget has basically doubled in the last decade. And my own experience here is that in doubling, we've lost our ability to prioritize, to make hard decisions, to do tough analysis, to make trades."
Seems like the Pentagon didn't get the memo and has been overspending its allowance. According to a Politico piece today from David Rogers, one of the best budget writers in town, DOD decided last September it would just keep spending on operations at the rate they had asked for in the FY 2013 budget request they sent to Congress a year ago.
Some kind of denial must have set in. The continuing resolution funded DOD through March 27 of this year at the FY 2012 rate, which means the 9 percent growth in operations spending the Pentagon wanted was not on the table, not yet.
Apparently, the Pentagon "bet on the come," assuming sequestration would not happen, and has merrily been funding operations (training, exercising, equipment maintenance, fuel purchases, services contracts, and, yes, operations in Afghanistan) as if the FY 2013 budget request were real.
Haven't they been watching? Even if we don't have a sequester, every analyst in town and on Wall Street has been saying the FY 2013 request is the best the Pentagon will do, and cuts are extremely likely, as part of a budget settlement.
Seems a bit irresponsible to spend when you know the money will not be there. Or is this a bizarre form of hostage-taking: if you don't do what I want, I will shoot myself...
Now, of course, we are being treated to round two of the "shoot myself" scenario, with dire, and highly vocal threats that we are headed for a readiness crisis of grand proportions. Readiness, which can be a refuge of scoundrels (especially when they don't define it), is funded largely in those same operations accounts. (See Panetta and Dempsey on the Sunday talk shows.) As I have already noted, this supposed crisis is way overstated, even though managing sequester levels of funding is a challenge.
Overspending your allowance is one way to get there, though. And the continuing resolution set a pretty clear level for the allowance. Overspend, and you run out of money earlier. And have to pull the trigger, especially if you are trying to prevent losing more money through a sequester.
Too cynical? Adm. Mullen was pretty realistic about the Pentagon's management problem. Either they did not hear him, or just willfully decided to ignore him and scream for help when they got into trouble.
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Putative secretary of defense Chuck Hagel had his baptism-by-fire yesterday at the Senate Armed Services Committee. It was all theater. One of its most striking features was the absence of almost any serious attention to the challenge he will actually face if he is confirmed: the management of a defense drawdown.
No senator focused on the Pentagon's long-term budget and management challenges. Not one. While a few asked about the looming sequester, the answers were anodyne. Only Sen. McCaskill asked about whether the department needed to have an auditable financial statement by 2017.
There was no discussion of the challenge of getting the costs of weapons procurement under control. Instead, senators from Connecticut, Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire, and Virginia all wanted to be reassured that the defense programs in their states were key to our national security, the top priority of the Pentagon, and protected from budget reductions.
There was no discussion of how to restrain compensation and benefits costs at the Pentagon. There was precious little interest in the programs that deal with the transition of veterans and returning soldiers. Aside from (rightly) honoring Hagel for his service in Vietnam, the people in the military were not a central focus.
And there was virtually no attention at all paid to the critical, long-term management challenge posed by the explosive growth of the Pentagon's "back office." The administrative part of the military bureaucracy has roughly doubled in cost per troop over the past 15 years.
When it came to sequester, the focus was on keeping it from happening, because of the pain it would allegedly cause. The senators have clearly been listening to the campaign being conducted by the service chiefs over the past two weeks, a campaign saying that sequester will cause U.S. military readiness to fall to security-threatening low levels. And, of course, Senator Hagel simply adopted the Panetta rhetoric that sequester would be a "disaster."
But we need to be cautious about this campaign. The service chiefs have been announcing specific, horrific things would happen as a result of a sequester -- docked ships, lowered brigade readiness rates, an end to equipment maintenance. Maybe. But maybe not. The chiefs are suggesting these consequences before they have actually submitted plans for the sequester to the deputy secretary of defense.
Those plans are due today, Feb. 1, but they have no official standing at all. Seems to me the deputy might have something to say about these steps, before the consequences can be announced.
So maybe, even here, we are watching political theater. And the service chiefs are running this show during a transition, while one secretary leaves and another is not yet confirmed. Convenient timing to shape the debate before Hagel arrives? I would be shocked -- shocked! -- to learn there is politics going on in this joint.
It is a pity that the Senate Armed Services Committee decided to avoid the long-term drawdown and the management challenges it actually poses. These are the problems Hagel will really face when he gets to the five-sided building: managing a drawdown safely and intelligently. These are the questions that should have been front and center, instead of the show we saw.
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Gordon Adams tracks the budget and the national security establishment for FP.