The end of fear: Facing reality about defense spending

The federal budget is coming out next week. The defense part has been declared dead on arrival because it does not take sequestration into account, just works off of last year's request and projects about a 3 percent cut in the Pentagon's funding, year over year. It will go down farther.

But what is more interesting is the extent to which fear about defense is being replaced by realism about the sequester and declining defense budgets. Both may be more absorbable than the rhetoric has been suggesting.

The hyperbolic rhetoric about the sequester is starting to fade with the disappearing charm of Leon Panetta. There's a new boss in town, and the noises over the transom, at least, suggest that calm may be returning to Pentagon waters. Secretary Hagel is warning of "significant changes" and the need to confront them as budgets go down: "There's no way around it," he said last week. (Though I've got to worry if House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon is happy with Hagel -- he's the guy who wanted the Senate to defeat the nomination a month ago.)

Realism is picking up steam in other places, as well. The Navy was going to keep ships in port, stop ship overhauls, and watch readiness tank before that full-year funding bill was passed. Now, with $4 billion more in operational funds than they had last year, it seems the Navy's worry-warts have been appeased and the planners can step in.

The chief of naval operations is on a more realistic message. Sequester is budget discipline: "It's causing us to make choices and prioritize anywhere from our operations to our maintenance to our investment accounts," Adm. Greenert told Navy Times.

Out there in the country, it seems "sequesteria" is starting to fade, as well. Taking a good look at defense dollars in California, Los Angeles Times reporter Jim Puzzanghera found that when you get away from the Aerospace Industries Association and George Mason Professor Stephen Fuller's "doomsday" megaphones, the local impacts of changes in defense spending are not that significant.

He quotes a regular student of the state economy, who points out that even beleaguered California has a $2 trillion economy, and it might face a $9 billion reduction in defense dollars.

I've been eyeing the California defense economy for more than 30 years, and the trend has been clear. Contractors started moving out of Los Angeles and planting stakes in places like Arizona and New Mexico more than 20 years ago. The bad news was they were leaving, and jobs went with them. The good news turns out to be that now when the defense industry starts to sniffle, LA does not catch a cold. Economic diversity has set in, and growth in other sectors has, over the years, filled the job hole.

Sometimes defense is just made to look bigger than it really is. Oh yes, the defense budget is large. At over $600 billion, how could it not be; it's the highest over the past few years it has ever been in constant dollars. That will help cushion the effect of the drawdown on the military -- there's lots of room for consolidation and choice.

But, all the models aside, it is not going to sink the economy. It just plain isn't as much of the economy as it used to be: nearly 10 percent of the Gross Domestic Product in the 1950s, to an average of 3.8 percent at the height of the Bush war effort over the past decade. Defense has stayed large -- very large -- but the economy has grown exponentially.

Fear makes a good story; realism and planning are a better reality. Maybe we're coming back to earth.


National Security

Pentagon budget and sequester watch: Let me restate that

It was a meat axe, Armageddon, a doomsday machine. It would sacrifice our military readiness, lead to America becoming a second-rate power. At least that was the Panetta version.

Nobody doubts that the sequester is a serious change in the vector of the defense budget, which would go down another 8 percent this year, as it rolls in over the Pentagon beach. And nobody doubts it poses management challenges to the Pentagon.

But after March 1, the Pentagon rhetoric cooled. The new secretary of defense took an adult view; sequester is a challenge to be managed, not the end of our national security.

He was helped by the passage of the new defense appropriation for FY 2013, which made it through Congress before the deadline of March 27. Almost every reporter who writes about the new spending bill is wrong -- it does not add any unusual flexibility to the Pentagon's normal spending practices, and, especially, it does not "shift funding" from the weapons and research account to the Pentagon's beleaguered operating accounts.

Instead, Congress largely passed the defense budget the administration asked for more than a year ago (yes, more than a year ago), which, quite rightly, asked for $12 billion more for the operations accounts (along with healthy funding for weapons and research) above the amount they had in FY 2012.

Congress actually reduced the president's budget request for military operations by $1.5 billion, leaving the Pentagon with $10.4 billion. But they didn't "shift" anything around to get there; they just provided most of what the president wanted in the first place. No gold star for Congress there.

But increasing the operations budget was exactly what the Pentagon wanted. And one payoff is that increasing this funding is starting to make sequester a bit more manageable.

The Emily Litella moments (remember, "Never mind"?) for the Pentagon are starting to appear. The Navy didn't send the carrier Harry S. Truman to the Gulf, but they did send a Littoral Combat Ship to Singapore.

Two of the services warned they would suspend funds for soldiers to take college classes while on active duty, but, after Congress and the soldiers jumped up and down on that and said no, the program was restored.

The Air Force announced it would have to suspend flying training for some air squadrons, but somehow found the operating cash to send bombers from the United States to South Korea in a show of force to the troublesome government of North Korea.

And this week, the biggie for the "never mind" observers -- those 22 days of civil service furloughs have suddenly become 14 days. A service or two actually wanted to suspend the furloughs altogether, but didn't out of solidarity with everyone else.

Maybe sequester is becoming what it was all along: a "BRAC" (base-closure process) for the defense budget. A kind of "hand of God" that came down from the sky and forced the Pentagon to make the choices it should have been making anyway.

I keep going back to what former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen said when this defense drawdown began, more than two years ago: "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."

But even if the Pentagon survives sequestration, and it will, the long-term budget planners in the five-sided building have still not awakened to the reality it imposes. Reports are that the new FY 2014 budget request will ask for more than $526 billion, a tiny step down from FY 2013, but one that leaves out any consideration of the sequester.

Time to absorb the sequester message and plan accordingly.

U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Teddy Wade/Released/DVIDS