Congressional leaders appear to have reach consensus that it is safer politically to allow deep and arbitrary cuts to military budgets than it is to negotiate a large debt-reduction deal that would have names attached.
With Republicans and Democrats unwilling to make difficult decisions to address budget deficits in a balanced way, the military is being forced to cut training, cancel construction projects, defer maintenance of ships, aircraft and vehicles, cancel professional conferences, halt most temporary duty assignments, and interrupt supply and equipment purchases.
Quality of life for the military also is being impacted as dependents lose jobs, local economies and businesses lose contracts, and base operations, including family support programs, take immediate budget cuts.
The entire Department of Defense has imposed a civilian-hiring freeze. At least 46,000 temporary employees are getting pink slips and many more employees under “term” contracts won’t see those contracts renewed.
Gordon Adams, a national security policy specialist with the Stimson Center and a senior White House budget official in the last Clinton administration, said he is “amazed” to watch congressional leaders, in effect, “fold their hands” on trying to prevent deeper defense cuts this year.
With the Iraq war ended and U.S. combat forces scheduled to leave Afghanistan in 2014, defense “is not the centerpiece” of the Capitol Hill budget argument. “The centerpiece is the overall federal budget and [tax] revenue...This is leadership driven. The armed services committees are almost irrelevant, which is very unusual.”
Even as Defense officials and military leaders ordered commands to take broad cost-cutting actions, they held out hope Congress will come to share their concern and take two remedial actions. One is to pass a defense appropriations bill for the fiscal year that began last October, thus removing spending caps imposed by operating through March under continuing budget resolution. The resolution freezes their budgets just below 2012 levels.
Service officials now fear Congress intends to extend the continuing resolution through September. If so, at a minimum, they seek authority to “reprogram” or transfer money between accounts to fully fund their highest priorities to sustain operations and protect readiness.
Second, Defense officials want Congress to swiftly reach a deficit reduction deal and avoid budget sequestration, which as adjusted during the Jan. 1 fiscal cliff deal, would still impose an eight percent cut across 2500 separate defense programs. Sequestration was a scheme Congress concocted in 2011 to scare itself into a debt deal. It has failed.
Effective Feb. 15, the Navy will cancel private-sector contracts for ship maintenance in the last half of fiscal 2013, impacting 10 ships in Norfolk, Va., 10 more in San Diego and one ship apiece in New London, Conn., Bremerton, Wash., and Jacksonville, Fla. This alone will save an estimated $600 million.
“The way we have tried to manage this is to protect forward deployed readiness so that are ships, aircraft and sailors forward deployed can continue to do what they need to do. Their mission won’t be affected,” said Rear Adm. John Kirby, Navy chief of information, in a phone interview.
The next goal is to protect training and readiness for “next-to-deploy forces.” That might not be possible, however, if Congress allows sequestration to take effect, as rescheduled, on March 1, Kirby warned.
Operating under a continuing resolution popped a $4.6 billion hole in Navy operations and maintenance budgets. Sequestration would expand that hole by $4 billion, explained Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, chief of naval operations, in fleet-wide message Jan. 25. The Navy would have to stop all deployments to the Caribbean and South America; limit European deployments to ballistic missile defense ships only, and cut steaming and flying hours across the fleet. A majority of ships and aircraft preparing for deployment would see stateside training, flying and steaming operations end, he warned, unless fleet commanders find other budget offsets.
That word “unless” in Greenert’s guidance is significant, Adams said. Like the other services, Adams argued, Navy paints worst-case scenarios for operating under a continuing budget resolution through September and taking the additional sequestration hit. When actually forced to take those cuts, Adams said, sequestration would allow flexibility in how operations and maintenance dollars get chopped. The service can, for example, target personnel service contracts, which have ballooned over a decade of war.
“It’s everything from cutting the grass at Fort Belvoir to serving the food at Bagram Air Base,” Adams said. “That’s an area, given our departure from Iraq and coming out of Afghanistan, that ought to be a low priority.”
The Army’s own “risk mitigation” budget guidance directs a 30-percent cut in base operations support to include “reduced levels of installation service delivery and reduced new and current contracts” for the same. To help to implement this, Army leaders promise further guidance “on the use of soldiers to perform installation functions.”
“That’s where you can manage” priorities, Adams said. “You might actually have a soldier pushing a lawnmower at Fort Belvoir come spring.”
Congress seems resigned to allow sequestration, he said, in part because it’s easier than reaching a balanced budget deal and in part because lawmakers recognize the military is in a post-war drawdown, a period when taking deep spending cuts is natural, particularly for ground forces.
Kirby countered that the Navy isn’t drawing down, however.
“All by itself the continuing resolution is going to have a readiness impact. Those ships will have to get maintenance sooner or later, and it is probably going to cost more. Just like maintenance on your car, defer it and when you finally get it into the garage you’re probably going to need more work than you originally needed and it will cost you more”
“The other cost is time,” Kirby continued. “If you had that ship scheduled for deployment in 2014 or ’15, now it will not be achievable because of needed maintenance. There’s a real readiness impact.”
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Tom Philpott has been breaking news for and about military people since 1977. After service in the Coast Guard, and 17 years as a reporter and senior editor with Army Times Publishing Company, Tom launched "Military Update," his syndicated weekly news column, in 1994. "Military Update" features timely news and analysis on issues affecting active duty members, reservists, retirees and their families.
Tom also edits a reader reaction column, "Military Forum." The online "home" for both features is Military.com.
Tom's freelance articles have appeared in numerous magazines including The New Yorker, Reader's Digest and Washingtonian. His critically-acclaimed book, Glory Denied, on the extraordinary ordeal and heroism of Col. Floyd "Jim" Thompson, the longest-held prisoner of war in American history, is available in hardcover and paperback.