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Did The Pentagon Exaggerate The Effects of Sequestration?

pentagon1

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.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Short answer: yes, it was exaggerated. With a budget the size of the DoD’s the very small relative cuts required by sequestration could be managed without difficulty if they had a mind to.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  2. john personna says:

    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.

    Wow.

    $5 trillion.

    That is a lot of money, even compared to the extremely pessimistic estimate of $3 trillion by economist Joseph Stiglitz (The Three Trillion Dollar War).

    I remember when Stiglitz was dismissed out of hand …

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  3. Console says:

    I don’t think it should be understated just how much the fact that the pentagon was granted flexibility is something that matters. I mean, I understand the grand point about whether defense spending cuts can be accomplished, but that’s a separate issue for the sequester as it exists for most agencies and as it existed for the Pentagon prior to their special exemption.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  4. Mikey says:

    @john personna: $5 trillion would make quite a bonfire.

    Which would have done just as much good for the country, without the loss of 6,000 young Americans and untold Iraqis and Afghans.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 3

  5. john personna says:

    @Mikey:

    Yeah, and of course when you are throwing around trillions, winding down on trillions, it is a bit easier to fudge a sequester of 42 billion.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  6. OldmanRick says:

    Absolutely. Trough feeders do not like to have rice taken from their rice bowl.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  7. Andy says:

    Doug,

    A couple of points and full disclosure here, I’m a civil service employee of the DoD.

    First, the problem all along with the sequestration was not the amount of money that was cut, but the implementation which was intended to be painful and disruptive. As has been pointed out numerous times, these were not cuts to the topline budget which would allow the department to prioritize what was cut and what wasn’t cut. Consider this analogy – you have to cut your household budget by 10%, but you have to do it by cutting 10% from everything you spend money on. You have to cut your rent by 10%, your car payment by 10%, your insurance by 10%, etc. That is exactly the way the sequestration was designed.

    Secondly, with the CRA that was passed in late March the DoD was given some flexibility to cut some programs and functions more than others. That’s the main reason that furloughs for DoD employees were reduced from 3 weeks to 11 days and it also helped to prevent some real damage to critical programs.

    Third, the full effects of the sequestration haven’t hit the DoD yet. The Department kicked-the-can, so to speak, hoping that Congress would end sequestration. That’s not going to happen, so the biggest effects will be in the last quarter of the FY, which is coming soon.

    Fourth, the sequestration has impacted readiness with many units. At some point those units will have to return to their normal readiness levels which will cost money. This is one example of how dumb the sequestration is, because it will end up costing more money to return to normalcy than is saved.

    Lastly, yes, the claims of the political leadership regarding the effects of sequestration were exaggerated. And the department will get through them. The worst effects were fixed by the CRA. But even so, the sequestration is stupidly disruptive.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 17 Thumb down 7

  8. john personna says:

    @Andy:

    Wonkblog has America’s staggering defense budget, in charts

    When you look at combined spending it was approximately $711 billion in 2011.

    We are far, far, above our typical “between wars” rate of $500 billion (constant dollars).

    So of course in that contraction, that return to normal, $42 billion can be absorbed. So should another $100 billion.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  9. john personna says:

    Pardon, our between wars rate had been $400B. For some reason we are expected to spend $500B in peacetime going forward. Again, constant dollars, so this is not an inflation effect.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  10. mantis says:

    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.

    Oh, notwithstanding that key detail? Hey, if you ignore the fact that Congress later made it possible for the Pentagon to make these cuts much less harmful, initial predictions about the harm the cuts would make were false. Good argument.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  11. stonetools says:

    @mantis:

    Thanks, Mantis. I’m getting older, so sometimes I miss the old right wing give and go.
    This is all a smokescreen anyway, meant to obscure the real question we should be asking,
    “Why should we cutting government spending right now?” Cutting government spending now is supported only by right wing charlatans in service of a zombie theory- austerianism- that is condemning millions to continued unemployment and needless suffering for no reason.
    Whether we should have a sequester at all should be issue, not whether the sequester is inflicting less suffering than originally estimated.

    Krugman is shrill:

    Sequester of Fools, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: … The … “sequester” [is] one of the worst policy ideas in our nation’s history. Here’s how it happened: Republicans engaged in unprecedented hostage-taking, threatening to push America into default by refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless President Obama agreed to a grand bargain on their terms. Mr. Obama, alas, didn’t stand firm; instead, he tried to buy time. And, somehow, both sides decided that the way to buy time was to create a fiscal doomsday machine that would inflict gratuitous damage on the nation through spending cuts unless a grand bargain was reached. Sure enough, there is no bargain, and the doomsday machine will go off at the end of next week. …

    But that’s water under the bridge. The question … is who has a better plan for dealing with the aftermath of that shared mistake. …

    Unfortunately, neither party is proposing that we just call the whole thing off. But the proposal from Senate Democrats at least moves in the right direction, replacing the most destructive spending cuts — those that fall on the most vulnerable… — with tax increases on the wealthy, and delaying austerity in a way that would protect the economy.

    House Republicans, on the other hand, want to take everything that’s bad about the sequester and make it worse: canceling cuts in the defense budget, which actually does contain a lot of waste and fraud, and replacing them with severe cuts in aid to America’s neediest. This would hit the nation with a double whammy, reducing growth while increasing injustice.

    Conservatives want to skip the fundamental question, but we need to keep our eye on what truly matters.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 8

  12. john personna says:

    @stonetools:

    I want to cut defense, and don’t consider myself a zombie!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  13. stonetools says:

    @john personna:

    I’m for sensible, properly timed defense cuts , not for this sequestration nonsense. Its one thing to propose defense cuts: its another thing altogether to cut things two per cent across the board. That’s like cutting somebody’s weight by slicing two inches off a fat person’s stomach.

    Want to cut defense? Start by closing down the F- 35 program, not by laying off random DOD employees.That’s how you do it, mate.
    You and I know that the Republicans are NOT serious about cutting defense. Indeed, they are doing their best to shield the DOD from cuts, while cutting food stamps for the poor. We shouldn’t be playing this game at all.
    Let’s abandon the sequester, then move on to a proper discussion of the budget . The idea that the sequester is a sensible way of cutting spending was and is BULLSH*T.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 4

  14. john personna says:

    @stonetools:

    You are worried about 2 (or even 10) percent?

    Did you follow my link above? We went from a $400B per year pace in the early 2000’s to a peak of over $700B. Even if you accept the consensus estimate, we WILL cut $200B per year to reach a new status quo of $500B per year.

    Given that slope, the sequestration is noise. That’s the first point.

    The second point is that some pols go nuts in the face of that. I just heard Lindsey Graham. He said something like “sequestration cripples our military when we need it most.”

    WFT, right?

    What is it rationally about 2013, or even 2020 that makes us see the greatest military threat in our history?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  15. Ron Beasley says:

    I suspect the biggest biggest concern for the beltway was not National Defense but the bottom line of defense contractors. They make billions making stuff the Pentagon doesn’t need and in many cases doesn’t even want.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  16. Lester says:

    @john personna:

    This is hardly “between” wars.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  17. Brad Hobbs says:

    One line in this post offers a great deal of clarification between the minor amounts (percentage wise) and the outsized “impacts” that were publicly heralded from DoD. Learning that they were given discretionary to move money around tells me, from the limited experience gained as a functional at a MAJCOM, that simply gave the Pentagon a green light to shift money from non-core programs, likely imposed upon them, to pet projects. Having seen the lengths to impose internal ‘taxes’ at various times to satisfy golden child projects versus must pays, it now makes sense that personnel programs have been targeted in favor of, say, scaling back larger projects. If this flexibility includes the ability to shift ‘colors of money’, an investigation of the ones opted for would probably lead to revelations of some pretty ridiculous and virtually un-defendable shennanigans, when given a cold eye review.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  18. Paul says:

    My son is a career Soldier in one of the Pentagons intel agencies. In response to the sequester, they worked out a department budget that avoided civilian employee furloughs by cutting out spending for new furniture, redecorating, etc. (which were planned mostly just to burn up their all their excess budget money, anyway). It was rejected by ‘higher’, and they were told that furloughs were MANDATORY. “And, by the way, go ahead with the new furniture and remodeling!”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. Andy says:

    @john personna: Yes, it’s staggering. What, specifically, should be cut and why?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. Annie says:

    Uniformed federal technicians (i.e. full-time National Guard) will be furloughed beginning June 1st. As someone earlier said, it will be the last quarter when it really hits. There is enough money, it is just intentionally not budgeted correctly.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  21. john personna says:

    @Lester:

    In 2010 troop levels in Iraq plus Afghanistan were 151,800

    In 2011 troop levels in Iraq plus Afghanistan were 106,200

    In 2012 troop levels in Iraq plus Afghanistan were 67,500

    In 2013 we are unwinding in both places. The wars are over, the occupations are ending. The numbers thrown around are something like 10,000 hold over troops in each country.

    @Andy:

    Your question doesn’t really have the right framing, does it? You imply that there is some “program” that needs to be addressed.

    See the numbers above.

    That’s what I’m talking about. Every troop reduction also reduces troop maintenance, gear usage, and replacement, and so on. [All of it on the other side of the world.]

    Just as the cost of the war went on many Congressional budget line items, so do the savings also accumulate on many line items.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  22. anjin-san says:

    I suspect the biggest biggest concern for the beltway was not National Defense but the bottom line of defense contractors.

    Bingo.

    The DOD budget has what, doubled since 9.11? Are we twice as secure? Do we face 100% more threats we did on Jan. 1 2001?

    We need to cut the defense budget and put more money into infrastructure and education. Spending on the military and prisons is out of control. What does this say about us as a country?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  23. john personna says:

    @anjin-san:

    We need to cut the defense budget and put more money into infrastructure and education. Spending on the military and prisons is out of control. What does this say about us as a country?

    Perhaps, but I think that all of these (defense, education, infrastructure) should be determined by solid bottom-up analysis, and not by naming our favorites.

    There is entirely too much favorite-naming across the internets.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  24. anjin-san says:

    @ john personna

    I’m fairly hawkish, I have nothing against a strong defense budget. I do have a problem with an insane, out of control defense budget. That being said, your point is a good one.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0