Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Top Twelve Defense Sequestration Scare Tactics

by Micah Zenko
August 23, 2012

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey hold a news conference at the Pentagon on June 29, 2012 (Yuri Gripas/Courtesy Reuters). Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey hold a news conference at the Pentagon on June 29, 2012 (Yuri Gripas/Courtesy Reuters).

Over a year ago, on August 2, 2011, President Obama signed the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011. The bipartisan legislation easily passed the House, 269-131, with 174 Republicans and 95 Democrats voting “yes.” The BCA similarly sailed through the Senate, 74-26, with endorsements from 28 Republicans and 45 Democrats.

An important component of the BCA agreement was to establish a bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction—or “supercommittee”—to target more than $1.5 trillion in cuts over a ten year period. If the supercommittee failed to reach an agreement before the end of 2011, sequestration would be triggered at the end of 2012—unless Congress reached a budget agreement within interim period. The BCA sequestration mechanism requires automatic reductions of equal cuts for defense and nondefense programs from fiscal years 2013 through 2021. For the defense budget, sequestration would mandate $492 billion in reductions, or roughly $55 billion per year.

Within forty-eight hours of the BCA becoming law, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta began a sustained campaign against sequestration, by inflating and expanding the range of national security threats facing the United States. Panetta kicked off his threat smorgasbord campaign by stating: “We face a broad and growing range of security threats and challenges that our military must be prepared to confront—from terrorist networks to rogue nations to rising powers waiting to see if we have lost our edge.” (Just yesterday, Panetta warned that one of the “heavy threats in the world” is the indefinable, yet always looming, “turmoil elsewhere.”)

His efforts, however, have largely fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps one explanation is that public opinion polls consistently demonstrate that most American citizens believe defense spending should be cut, roughly to the level mandated by defense sequestration. In one April survey, a representative sample of Americans was given information about the defense budget and arguments for and against reductions. Overall, 76 percent called for reducing defense spending: 67 percent of Republicans, 68 percent of independents, and 90 percent of Democrats.  As the survey found:

The average proposed level of spending was $435 billion—$127 billion below 2012 levels, representing a 23% cut. Among Republicans, the average proposed level was down $83 billion (a 15% cut); among Democrats, it was down $155 billion (a 28% cut); and among independents it was down $147 billion (a 26% cut)…A majority reduced defense spending by at least $63 billion, or 11%—thus down to $499 billion—with many in this majority reducing it by more.

Interestingly, the Bipartisan Policy Center projected that defense sequestration, if triggered, would lower the Pentagon’s budget (excluding war costs) for fiscal year 2013 to $498 billion. As then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates quipped in July 2009: “If the Department of Defense can’t figure out a way to defend the United States on half a trillion dollars a year, then our problems are much bigger than anything that can be cured by buying a few more ships and planes.”

The defense sequestration gimmick was always a terrible idea, which is to be expected in an era of barely-functioning legislative and executive branches of government. Implementing defense and nondefense sequestration will be required by law if either a reelected President Obama or a President Romney cannot cut a new deal with Congress. In an effort to force such an agreement, many policymakers and analysts are issuing grave warnings and inflated threats. Here are twelve of the most dubious:

1. General Raymond T. Odierno, House Armed Services Committee Hearing, November 2, 2011

“Cuts of this magnitude would be catastrophic to the military.”

(3PA: Webster’s dictionary defines catastrophe as “utter failure.” It is implausible that the entire U.S. military would be unable to function with just under $500 billion in taxpayer funds.)


2. Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, House Armed Services Committee Hearing, November 2, 2011

“With sequestration, my assessment is that the nation would incur an unacceptable level of strategic and operational risk.”


3. Leon Panetta, News Briefing, November 10, 2011

“It’s a ship without sailors. It’s a brigade without bullets. It’s an air wing without enough trained pilots. It’s a paper tiger. An Army of barracks, buildings and bombs without enough trained soldiers able to accomplish the mission. It’s a force that suffers low morale, poor readiness, and is unable to keep up with potential adversaries. In effect, it invites aggression.”

(3PA: Defense sequestration would reduce defense spending to 2007 levels (adjusted for inflation). Presumably, Panetta believed that the U.S. military was “a paper tiger” five years ago.  Furthermore, the size of the military in 2007 did not invite aggression.)


4. Leon Panetta, Letter to Senator McCain, November 14, 2011

“Facing such large reductions, we would have to reduce the size of the military sharply. Rough estimates suggest after ten years of these cuts, we would have the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest Air Force in its history.”

(3PA: Panetta is a strong believer in the notion that “size matters” when it comes to defense planning. It is a sad reach for the Secretary of Defense to compare the firepower of naval platforms today, with those from 97 years ago.)


5. Gregory P. Keeley, “Perils of Sequestration,” Washington Times, June 8, 2012

“From a pure national security perspective, the gap between the U.S. military and our closest rivals will collapse with sequestration. The weapons systems now rolling off foreign assembly lines are roughly equivalent to the platforms being retired at home – a scenario expected to enhance the technology gap in favor of the United States. In most instances, we enjoy a lead in technology of one or, in many cases, two generations. This American technology advantage will evaporate with sequestration.”

(3PA: Even with defense sequestration, the Pentagon would spend more on research and development alone (approximately $70 billion) than every other country spends on their entire military, except China.)


6. General Martin Dempsey, Hearing of the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, June 13, 2012

“We can’t yet say precisely how bad the damage would be but it is clear that sequestration would risk hollowing out our force and reducing its military options available to the nation. We would go from being unquestionably powerful everywhere to being less visible globally and presenting less of an overmatch to our adversaries. And that would translate into a different deterrent calculus and potentially therefore increase the likelihood of conflict.”


7. Leon Panetta, News Briefing, June 29, 2012

“Let me be frank: The biggest risk to everything I’ve talked about—to the health of our force to the well-being of our servicemembers and our families—is the threat of the sequester.”

(3PA: Section 255 of the BCA allows the president to exempt military personnel accounts from sequestration, and Obama has said he will do this.)


8. Editorial, Wall Street Journal, July 20, 2012

“Defense shouldn’t be immune from cuts, but Mr. Obama’s policy choices are turning America into an entitlement state with a shrinking military—in other words, Europe. The U.S. would be left with the smallest Navy since World War I, the smallest ground forces in 70 years, and at just over 2.5% of GDP the smallest defense budget since Pearl Harbor.”

(3PA: The notion that defense spending should be arbitrarily tied to whatever the U.S. gross domestic product is for a given year is an even worse idea than defense sequestration.)


9. Saxby Chambliss, “The Threat From Within to Our National Security,” Macon Telegraph, August 3, 2012.

“Our nation and our military are about to confront one of the biggest threats since World War II. It does not come in the form of a shadowy terrorist organization or a well-armed foreign foe. Instead, it is looming in the form of indiscriminate budget cuts that will strike on Jan. 1, 2013.”

(3PA: Here Senator Chambliss compares what was bipartisan legislation to, say, the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal.)


10. MacKenzie Eaglen, “Defense vs. Food Stamps—What Would You Choose?Wall Street Journal, August 7, 2012

“Even before sequestration and the possible loss of a half-trillion dollars, the U.S. military has seen three years of budget cuts. The consequences are already here. We have to look all the way back to 1916 to find a year when the Air Force purchased fewer aircraft than are included in Mr. Obama’s 2013 budget request. Many of the Air Force’s aerial refueling tankers predate human space flight. Training aircraft are twice as old as the students flying them. The F-15 fighter first flew 40 years ago. A-10 ground-attack planes were developed in the Carter years. And all of our B-52 bombers predate the Cuban missile crisis.”


11. Ike Skelton, “Military Budget Cuts Are No Shortcut,” News-Leader, August 17, 2012.

“The ‘Powell Doctrine’ of only risking our troops when backed up by overwhelming force and clear path to decisive victory could be at risk.”

(3PA: This is especially puzzling since the “Powell Doctrine” refers to a set of principles developed by Gen. Colin Powell in the early 1990s about when the United States should go to war.  It is essentially Powell’s wish-list for how military force should be employed after all other national elements of power have been exhausted. The Powell Doctrine is not actual doctrine, and is not found anywhere in U.S. military Joint Doctrine.)


12. Owen Graham, “Cuts Will Cripple Military and Make It ‘Hollow Force’ of 70s,” Charlotte Observer, August 21, 2012

“The Navy deploys ships that are barely able to sail, and members of the Army have had to tape body armor to their SUVs.”

(3PA: The U.S. Navy has 283 “deployable battle force ships.” Although it is true that they do not operate by wind power, they are actually quite capable of sailing.)

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Joseph Trevithick

    Still no mention of the fact that the BDA specifically instructs OMB to increase the security spending cap by whatever its determined to be an “emergency requirement” (such as the OCO budget), and that anything can be determined to be an emergency requirement so long as the President and Congress agree. Any talk about the fear of the sequester is about scoring political points or protecting pet programs. If there was any real concern, then any additions would just be added to the OCO budget and exempted from the BDA spending caps. No doubt this is the sort of wrangling that will happen after the political value of the threat of a “sequester doomsday” has passed, that is if the law isn’t changed entirely between now and then.

  • Posted by Robert Maguire

    When the Fed Govt has to borrow 40% of every dollar it spends, ALL Federal spending (both descretionary and entitlement), must be cut. When almost 50% of the population pays no Federal income tax, the top earners should pay their fair share and the base number of taxpayers should be expanded. These are painful but necessary choices. Then the hard decisions must be made after a full public debate, and reflected in a Federal budget – what are the appropriate purposes for the Federal government to spend limited public funds – national defense or national health or education or infrastructure or safety-net entitlements?

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