DoD Buzz

2012: The year ahead

The year is only a few days old, but we already know approximately when two of its important events are going to happen.

First, in the short term, Secretary Panetta is apparently set to deliver DoD's now traditional early-year bad news within the coming days. DoD wasted no time this week in setting up that narrative, although the exact details of what Panetta will say, and when, aren't yet fully clear.

According to the New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller and Thom Shanker, who seem to have been given an advance heads-up, Panetta will formally delete the "two major wars" requirement that DoD has used as a key plank in its planning. But they say he may not do a Robert Gates-style list of winners and losers, preferring to wait for the budget. Wrote Bumiller and Shanker:

Mr. Panetta will outline the strategy guiding his spending plans at a news conference this week, and the specific cuts — for now, the Pentagon has prepared about $260 billion in cuts for the next five years — will be detailed in the president’s annual budget submission to Congress, where they will be debated and almost certainly amended before approval. Although the proposals look to budget cuts over a decade, any future president can decide to propose an alternative spending plan to Congress.

The looming cuts inevitably force decisions on the scope and future of the American military. If, say, the Pentagon saves $7 billion over a decade by reducing the number of aircraft carriers to 10 from 11, would there be sufficient forces in the Pacific to counter an increasingly bold China? If the Pentagon saves nearly $150 billion in the next 10 years by shrinking the Army to, say, 483,000 troops from 570,000, would America be prepared for a grinding, lengthy ground war in Asia?

No, it wouldn't. But the whole point of this exercise was once to lay the groundwork for what America would and -- critically -- would not prepare for. Looking for actual choices and actual strategy in a Pentagon strategy document can seem like a fool's errand, but if this one lives up to its initial billing, it will draw those lines and say clearly what the U.S. considers important for the future.

And did you catch that bit about how "any future president can decide to propose an alternative spending plan?" That brings us to our second important event, one for which we know the date precisely: Nov. 6. That's when President Obama will face his Republican challenger in the general election, and when voters will decide the makeup of the next Congress. The outcome of this year's elections will set the near- and medium-term picture for the military-industrial-congressional complex, and if a Republican wins, it's possible the budget outlook could change.

Then again, as we talked about last year, it's not certain whether a Republican in the White House could avert the much-discussed threat of sequestration. President Obama -- who along with Panetta supports the automatic $1.2 trillion in reductions in budget growth, barring a "comprehensive" deal to get them another way -- would stay in office until early 2013, as would a "lame-duck" Congress. If the current deadlocks keep up until Obama's successor is inaugurated on Jan 20 and the next Congress is seated, could the newcomers act to reverse sequestration after it hit on Jan. 2? Or is it a true dead-man's switch, rigged to go off no matter what?

One of this year's big battles in Washington could be over whether Congress gives the Pentagon the ability to prioritize  for "sequestration," which, under the initial law, it could not. (That's why you heard Panetta caution lawmakers DoD "couldn't buy three quarters of a building.") But that kind of common-sense approach isn't as big a no-brainer as it appears: DoD "has not been told to plan for sequestration," as we heard, and Panetta's rollout this week will reflect last year's $450 billion in reduced growth, because that's all the Pentagon choses to acknowledge for now. If it asks Congress to let it plan for a worse case, that might mean it could have to concede the worse case was feasible -- which it does not want.

But Election Day could bring more than just two scenarios: A re-elected Obama who persists with sequestration and a Republican who supports dialing it back, at least for DoD. Voters also could send a president and new lawmakers who want to tackle the long-term deficit on a scale as-yet undreamt of inside the Beltway. The nation's fiscal health has become a huge issue for a lot of voters, and with presidential candidates vowing to eliminate entire federal departments and slash trillions upon trillions of dollars in spending, the jaws of the big crunch could get even bigger.

Who knows? The only thing we can say for sure today is that it's going to be an interesting year.

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