August 4, 2013
A sharply reduced number of military personnel wielding cutting-edge technology, or a larger defense force with diminished technological capability.
That is the difficult choice facing the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said last week, as our military carries out the $500 billion in 10-year sequester cutbacks on top of the $487 million in spending reductions already planned.
If the military decides to make technology superiority its priority, Hagel said, cuts in personnel through 2019 could amount to as much as 29 percent of soldiers, 18 percent of Marines and three Navy aircraft carriers.
Another possibility, he said, is the loss of as many as five combat air squadrons from the Air Force.
Hagel then explained the big-picture ramifications from these drawdowns: “This strategic choice would result in a force that would be technologically dominant but would be much smaller and able to go fewer places and do fewer things, especially if crises occurred at the same time in different regions of the world.”
Our leaders always should choose to use military power only as a last resort, and there’s no question that the defense budget needs to be part of an overall approach toward fiscal discipline by the federal government. At the same time, we have allies and important security interests that include locales as far-flung as the Korean Peninsula, Pacific maritime trade corridors and the Persian Gulf. When it is in our national interest to exert our military power, it’s crucial that we have the capability to move swiftly and effectively.
As Hagel explains, the sequester budget-cutting process in particular threatens a considerable erosion in that capability.
This situation is a failure of both Congress and the White House. The two sides failed to work out an overall budget reduction strategy that would provide sensible flexibility in carrying out cutbacks. Instead, they allowed sequestration to proceed.
Recent news accounts have pointed to a related problem in Washington on defense budgeting: Congress has bowed to lobbying pressure and insisted on maintaining the Global Hawk drone program even though the Air Force, Army and the White House all have said they don’t want the program.
The Global Hawk program began with a $35 million-per-plane price tag under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s and now has ballooned to $223 million per plane and counting.
This illustrates one of the fundamental fiscal challenges for Hagel and the Pentagon: Major defense systems start out expensive, and then the inflation rate in succeeding years winds up driving up the costs even higher.
Production of the Global Hawk drone was spread across a number of states and congressional districts, enabling local pressure to combine with corporate lobbying to exert leverage on members of Congress to keep funding it.
The same thing happened a while back, when a similar combination of forces talked Congress into keeping funding for the M1 Abrams tank even though the Army said it no longer supported the tank’s production.
It’s imperative that the allocation of resources be determined by sound policy rather than lobbying and parochial interests. Imperative, too, that our leaders in Washington reach agreement on a budget strategy besides the meat-ax approach of sequestration.
Congress and the White House need to stand up and do the right thing for the national interest.