This war is still going

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.


National Security

Congress is sending Hagel a signal

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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