Opinion: Columnists

Sunday Reflection: Pentagon stares into budget abyss

By |

Planning used to be what the Pentagon did best, but no longer. Its budget was never a thing of beauty because Congress and the services were always tinkering. And beginning with the 2011 Budget Control Act, it was held hostage to politics.

At White House direction, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had, until now, refused to plan for the turmoil that would come in March if sequestration -- an additional $600 billion in cuts over 10 years -- hit.

The Pentagon's first attempts to manage sequestration have left the Defense Department leadership scrambling to plan how they'll deal with the spending abyss that has opened in their path. The first glimpses are of an ugly mess.

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter asked the services for their basic outlines of a plan. In a Jan. 7 memo from Air Force Secretary Mike Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force leadership outlined everything from civilian employee furloughs to reducing flying hours by as much as 18 percent, plus reducing aircraft maintenance by almost as much. The Air Force says it will have to cut more if, by March, the budget mess isn't resolved and sequestration is imposed. (The Navy and Army provided similar input, which has not yet become public.)

As a result, Carter issued a Jan. 10 directive to all the services and defense activities requiring them to plan in certain ways for limited funding under the continuing resolution and possible sequestration.

As Carter notes, sequestration may take place as late as March -- halfway through the Pentagon's fiscal year -- and would impose "significant additional uncertainty" in Pentagon budget authority because the cuts would have to be made over six months rather than a year. Contrary to the law's requirement that sequestration cut every Pentagon budget item, the president has directed that some defense spending shouldn't be affected by sequestration, so the Pentagon is apparently planning to take money out of some budgets to pay for others.

Carter's memo tells the services to take steps to protect budgets for, among others, military personnel, wartime operations and family programs. But the best he can do is to say that "prudent steps" should be taken to minimize disruption and added costs that may be incurred if contracts -- including the largest weapon system contracts -- have to be cut back or even cancelled.

One of the things Carter directs to be cut first is maintenance for Navy ships and all services' aircraft. He also directs that the services inform him of plans to reduce flying hours, sailing days and vehicle miles. And he asks the services for their plans to reduce the "unit buys" in major acquisitions such as ships, aircraft and missiles.

The bottom line is that the Pentagon can't plan to perform its mission because it doesn't know what it can spend.

The budget uncertainties are creating inefficiencies in Defense Department operations that will cost us more, not less. When the Pentagon reduces the number of ships or aircraft a contractor is producing per year, the price inevitably goes up, because costs have to be amortized over fewer units.

And sequestration may cause major contracts to be terminated. When the government terminates a contract, it's legally bound to pay "termination costs," which often are as much as it would pay for the finished product.

Our nation will be paying a very high cost in terms of reduced national security if the Pentagon's budget and sequestration problems aren't solved quickly. If sequestration happens, it could lead to a potential grounding of the Air Force in September and "driving all flying units to unacceptable readiness levels by the end of 2013."

The problems presented in the Air Force leaders' memo will have parallels in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps.

That's a government shutdown that would be far more damaging than anything that might result from not raising the debt ceiling.

In last Monday's press conference, President Obama said he wouldn't bargain with Republicans over raising the debt ceiling within the next month. But defense budgeting and sequestration must be dealt with at the same time to preserve our national defense. By refusing to deal with the Republicans, Obama is holding the Pentagon hostage. Obama's is an irresponsible position that must not stand.

Jed Babbin was appointed deputy undersecretary of defense by President George H.W. Bush. He is the author of such best-selling books as "Inside the Asylum" and "In the Words of Our Enemies."

View article comments Leave a comment