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SecDef's fleet warnings have already come true

You never know what's going to break through all the noise.

Secretary Panetta's letter this week to Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina resonated with the Washington and national media, even though it contained nothing he, Gen. Dempsey and other top DoD and armed services advocates haven't already been shouting from the rooftops.

McCain even thanked Panetta at Tuesday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing for finally including specifics about the potential consequences of budget sequestration -- even though his letter said nothing definitive about what will happen. It raised the prospect that DoD could eliminate the F-35, the Air Force's new bomber, the Littoral Combat Ship, the Ground Combat Vehicle, on and on and all the rest of it -- an eye-grabbing list of programs with support across the Hill. Think tanks and white-paperists have been grinding out almost this same litany for more than a year. Nothing on it was surprising.

Not only that, Panetta's warning about the the Navy and Air Force has already come true. If sequestration went into effect, he wrote, the Navy would have its smallest fleet since 1915. Well, it already does, and two consecutive chiefs of naval operations have been using that same talking point since 2009. Panetta warned sequestration would leave the Air Force with its smallest fleet ever. Well, its fleet of tactical aircraft already has been shrinking and aging for years, and if you took away its only lifelines -- the F-35A and the new bomber -- no wonder the situation would get worse.

In fact, smaller, older fleets are just the tip of the iceberg. Even before the debt ceiling and the super committee and the Doomsday Device, many skeptics doubted that either service could actually afford its plans for the coming decades. As we've talked about many times before, the Navy projects that it's going to start running out of surface ships and submarines in the 2020s, faster than it can replace them. That's assuming it could even afford any other ships besides its planned Ohio-replacement ballistic missile submarines. And the Air Force has to find a way to deal with the "bow wave" caused by its KC-46A tankers, F-35As and new next-generation bombers all coming into full production at around the same time. (Plus it's going to have to replace Air Force One and who knows what else.)

In short, even with the normal budget growth the Pentagon had been counting on, the Navy and Air Force were in a dire fix. So if anything, Panetta is under-selling the potential danger of sequestration to the Navy and Air Force -- rare indeed amid this fall's budget hyperventilation around Washington. Maybe that's politically wise; giving the full story might have prompted people to ask how the services could have emerged from a decade of record defense spending with smaller, older fleets.

The defense game already was complex and confusing, and the past few months have only deepened the feeling of vertigo. Panetta and President Obama are repeating to Asian allies that the U.S. is locked in as a stabilizing partner for the long-term. American Marines and airmen will be spending a lot more time in Australia. And yet Washington appears to be on the brink of gutting services that already were in a tricky spot to begin with. Would Congress and the administration really let it happen?

Or is all this just another "Indonesian shadow play," as Gordon Adams called it, and if so -- when will it be over?

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