Did The Pentagon Exaggerate The Effects of Sequestration?
The sequestration cuts are two months old, and it seems pretty clear that the claims of doom we heard before they went into effect were heavily exaggerated.
From the time that the ink was dry on the Budget Control Act of 2011, the bill which solved the summer-long standoff over raising the debt ceiling and setup a plan under which automatic budget cuts would kick in unless Congress came up with an alternative plan, we were hearing warnings that the sequestration cuts contained in the bill would be devastating to America’s defense. Within days after the bill became law, then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that the cuts would be a “doomsday mechanism” that would wreck the defense budget and his departments ability to adequately fund the nation’s defense. He was joined by Republican Members of Congress who asserted that the sequestration cuts would devastate the defense budget. After the so-called Super-Committee failed to come up with a plan to replace sequestration, Republicans in Congress began to repeat the same rhetoric and, as early as February 2012, Republican Senators such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham were pushing to void the defense side of the sequestration cuts. The reality, of course, that there was very little evidence that the sequestration cuts would have the impact that the Pentagon, Republicans, and defense lobbyists were saying at the time. Now, with the nation nearly two months into sequestration, it’s beginning to look like the Pentagon was exaggerating the impact of the sequestration cuts quite substantially:
WASHINGTON — A funny thing happened on the way to a predicted disaster: The Pentagon is learning to live with the automatic budget cuts its leaders had warned would threaten national security if they took effect.
The change from near-hysteria to sober assessment starts at the top with new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a former maverick Republican senator from Nebraska who’s long pushed for serious restructuring of military spending. He replaced Leon Panetta in February.
Defense analysts say the forced spending reductions - called a sequester on Capitol Hill - and the arrival of a new Pentagon chief are compelling military leaders to focus on core national security needs and to operate more efficiently after the expenditure of what will reach $5 trillion on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and a near doubling of the overall defense budget from 2001 to 2011.
“Things have settled down since the sequester started,” retired Army Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer, an analyst with the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington who speaks regularly with top military officers and civilian Pentagon leaders, told McClatchy.
“They’re looking at how, with a lower budget, to maintain real focus on real threats,” Shaffer said. “The generals are reluctant to speak publicly about it, but there have been no detrimental effects on mission-critical capabilities.”Among the core capabilities that Shaffer said remain unharmed are a broad range of global exercises and deployments involving carrier battle groups and military training teams; military operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere that the Pentagon classifies as “critical” or “sensitive”; and military schools and combat training.
A little-noticed provision, contained in the stopgap funding bill that Congress passed in March, gave the Pentagon more flexibility than other federal agencies in applying its $42 billion share of the automatic cuts through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
While other agencies must apply the cuts equally across all programs, the Pentagon may transfer funds among programs in order to take into account critical national security tasks.
Following the terms of the August 2011 debt-ceiling deal, which put the across-the-board spending cuts in place if Congress failed to find more targeted ones, Obama exempted the nation’s 1.4 million active-duty troops from pay cuts or furloughs.
Notwithstanding the flexibility that Congress has given to the Pentagon — a flexibility not dissimilar to that granted to the Department of Transportation that allowed the FAA to avoid the closure of air traffic control towers — it seems quite apparent that the scenarios of doom that were pitched to us by defense lobbyists, hawkish Republicans, and Pentagon itself simply haven’t lived up to reality. There has been no noticeable impact on national security, no apparent impact on defense preparedness, and, other than the cancellation of the appearances of the Navy Blue Angels at some airshows and the lack of military fly-overs at a few sporting events, no real noticeable public impact from the sequestration cuts at all, As far as actual defense preparedness goes, there again have been no reports of any noticeable impact on the ability and readiness of the U.S. military to carryout the missions assigned to it as well as being prepared for any potential threats.
Partly, this is a reflection of a change in tone from the Pentagon after the departure of former Secretary Panetta:
Since the forced cuts started, reassurances of continued U.S. military superiority have replaced earlier warnings that, as Panetta put it, the United States would become a “second-rate power” if they took effect. U.S. defense spending makes up 38 percent of all such spending in the world, with the Pentagon still getting as much funding as the militaries of the next 16 nations combined.
“This statistic is true and won’t change much in the coming years,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington last month. “It’s also worth noting that most of the rest of the money that the world spends on defense is spent by countries that are allies and friends of the United States.”
That last part is a point that we’ve made here at OTB several times in the past. The United States spends far more than any other nation on the planet on its military, and if you add in the spending of American allies the difference between what is spent between us and and nations like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea is astronomical. The assertion that the relatively minor cuts that sequestration puts in place would be a serious threat to national security, as claimed by then-Secretary Clinton, many members of Congress and the Senate, and of course the defense industry was never really credible to begin with. Now that the cuts have actually gone into effect, we’re beginning to see that those claims were far from accurate. So, yes, it would appear that the Pentagon was at the very least stretching the truth when it claimed that the cuts would be devastating, because they quite clearly haven’t been.