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Washington Post gets it wrong

The Washington Post seems to have become the house organ for those who insist the defense budget must be saved at all costs, arguing today that the "fiscal cliff" (which I have described as a fiscal "slide") would be a disaster for defense.

It's a case made by a number of folks, most of them (like the defense industry and the neo-conservative think tanks) cozier with the Iron Triangle than the Post. And, given that we spend more on defense than most of the rest of the world put together and have a global military capacity second to none (no one else even tries to match us), the argument falls on its face.

What is disturbing about the Post editorial, however, is not only that it is wrong on the merits, it is simply wrong on the facts. It claims that sequester would force the Pentagon to "fire" more than 100,000 civilian workers. Presumably, they got that number from a back-of-the-envelope report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

But even the CSBA study acknowledges that "furloughs" are part of the likely DOD response to a sequester. Lay-offs simply cost too much to carry out, and the furlough route, while tough, would be manageable in a department that has the largest back office (proportionally) of 29 countries whose "tooth-to-tail" ratio was studied by McKinsey in 2010. Only the Swiss, who have not gone to war in centuries, have a larger back office.

The Post says training for non-deployed forces would be cut back in a sequester, but training funds are in the most flexible accounts under a sequester, allowing DOD managers to protect training, if they like, and maybe cut less grass at Ft. Belvoir for a few months.

Oddly, the Post says shipbuilding funds would decline 4.5 percent under a sequester, though the Office of Management and Budget has said clearly that the sequester would take 9.2 percent of defense resources. In any case, the sequester leaves untouched current contracts and programs in shipbuilding and elsewhere, with no impact on current production.

Most bewildering of all, the Post argues that management savings could be had, especially in the area of health care programs "which consume nearly 30 percent of the budget." Health care programs are certainly an issue at DOD, as they are for the rest of us. But according to the Congressional Budget Office, health care programs consume 8 percent of the defense budget, not 30 percent. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously put it: "You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts."

The debate over the defense budget, in the larger framework of the coming month's fiscal negotiations, is going to be interesting. But it is not doomsday for defense. And arguing from strange facts does not make it otherwise.

Roger Wollenberg/Getty Images

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