Soldiers are not above politics and the dire warnings we’ve been hearing for months about sequester “gutting” the military may have been more scare tactic than reality.
The warnings only grew more dire as the deadline approached. Automatic cuts to national defense, Pentagon leaders insisted, would be a “disaster,” amounting to “assisted suicide” and “a major step toward creation of an unready, hollow military force.”
But now that the cuts known as sequestration have been triggered, an unlikely meeting of the minds is taking place among some liberals, libertarians, and Tea Party conservatives: They say the US defense budget, which is larger than that of the next nine largest militaries combined, can and should be cut significantly — and that doing so will not harm national security.
“It is not like we have Soviet tank divisions at the German border poised to launch a sneak attack,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, an independent research group in Alexandria, Va. “It is not a question of readiness. It is a question of readiness to do what? The defense budget is twice what it was before Sept. 11th and we have half as many enemies. A lot of this is theater. Let them sequester and they will see that nothing happens.”
That, of course, is not the message coming from the commander in chief, most of the top brass, and members of Congress, many of whom are concerned about job losses or smaller profit margins for defense contractors in their states.
Last week during a swing through Newport News, Va., where many of the Navy’s warships are built, President Obama said the cuts “will weaken our military readiness.”
In testimony before a House panel, the chiefs of the military branches sounded similar alarms about the combination of the sequester cuts and the failure of Congress so far to pass a complete budget for this year.
“We will curtail training for 80 percent of our ground forces,” the Army’s chief of staff, General Raymond Odierno, predicted.
“By the beginning of next year, more than 50 percent of my tactical units will be below acceptable levels of readiness for deployment to combat,” added the Marine Corps commandant, General James Amos.
The Air Force chief of staff, General Mark Welsh, noted that with reduced training two-thirds of combat units will “drop below acceptable readiness levels, by our definitions, by mid-May.
“Most will be completely non-mission-capable as a unit by July,” Welsh said.
When defense budgets need to be scaled back, the cut of choice is in readiness. You can’t cut soldier’s pay or pension and health care benefits (an effort may be made to change pension rules next year, but no significant cut is anticipated). And you can only stretch out the number of years so much to bring a new weapons system online.
But according to the Congressional Research Service, the military has more flexibility in “across the board” cuts than they seem to indicate:
The report concluded, for example, that despite the across-the-board nature of the cuts the Pentagon “would have discretion to allocate funding” to higher priority areas and take steps that “could limit reductions to the services’ readiness-related” programs.
Others agreed that the rhetoric from top military officials about the threat to the nation’s combat edge is exaggerated.
Like their civilian counterparts who warn of dire consequences if the sequester occurs, the generals appear to have little appetite to think seriously about priorities and, within the constraints mandated by the cuts, work to lessen the impact of the cuts in those areas considered vital to our security.
Senator Rand Paul said it best:
“It is time Democrats admit that not every dollar spent on domestic programs is sacred,” he said. “And it is time Republicans realize that military spending is not immune to waste and fraud.”
Indeed, Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, made the same point many conservatives are making about the sharp increase in domestic spending under President Obama: “The reality is we can do this level of cuts. If we can’t defend the country on half a trillion dollars [a year] then we are doing something wrong.” The cuts bring us back to 2007 levels of defense spending — a period where we were engaged in two wars.
The sequester appears to have triggered a healthy debate about how much is too much government spending, and directs uncomfortable questions at agency heads and department secretaries who appear to need massive increases in spending every year to do their jobs.
If the sequester does nothing else than make the federal government’s hundreds of agencies and departments think seriously about priorities — including the Pentagon — it will have performed an invaluable service to the republic.