Sequestration was supposed to be the poison pill never swallowed, the stick that made the carrot palatable, proof that Congress can do the right thing once all other options are exhausted.

But across-the-board spending limits set into motion by Congress in 2011 actually happened, and they either failed miserably or succeeded brilliantly, depending on your perspective.

“There’s no question that budget caps have forced the government to make tough choices on defense and domestic discretionary outlays,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute. “The problem is that budget deficits are driven by entitlement programs outside the scope of the sequestration law.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, says there’s no upside to the law when it comes to national security.

“In short, we lied to the American people,” said McCain at a September congressional hearing. “The Budget Control Act and sequestration have done nothing to fix our national debt. And what’s worse, the people we have punished for our failure are none other than the men and women of our armed services, and many other important agencies.”

Five years after the Budget Control Act was passed, the punishment McCain referred to is manifesting in the force itself. While big-ticket aircraft, ships and vehicles have remained more or less unscathed, men and women in uniform were left to bear the brunt of the budget cuts. Nimble businesses, meanwhile, adjusted quickly, shoring up their strengths and shedding what wasn’t needed.

Read more in our sequester series:

• Sequester special report: Warships, fighters, vehicles mostly saved

• Sequester special report: Defense industry prepped for the worst

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Recent aircraft crashes can be traced to cuts in training, experts say. Units that were once deployable are now labeled “weak.” In other areas, personnel have been cut, damaging morale and driving a retention crisis.

Yet as the sequester era reaches its halfway point, military industries are turning their attention to a new president, who has made big promises to end the caps if he can get warring factions in Congress to play along and figure out how to pay for it all.

Motivating threat

What we call “sequestration” or “the sequester” was born when the deficit hawks and doves in Congress were fighting over federal spending and ballooning budget deficits. Fiscal doves wanted short-term spending to boost the economy, while hawks worried that this would merely hasten America’s advance toward the edge of a “fiscal cliff.”

So Congress passed the Budget Control Act of 2011, known at the time as “the debt ceiling compromise.” Its key ingredient was a bipartisan “supercommittee” that would forge a compromise to cut more than $1 trillion from the federal budget over 10 years.


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Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, says there’s no upside to the law when it comes to national security. (AP Photo)

To make sure the committee wasn’t ignored, as so many are in Washington, the legislation contained a serious kicker: If Congress failed to act, the federal budget would be capped, and any additional money appropriated by Congress would be “sequestered,” that is, isolated and retained by the Treasury until a deal was reached.

As with any budget, there were lots of other arcane provisions, including lower caps in subsequent years if Congress didn’t agree on a deal.

Like frustrated parents shouting at their children, “Don’t make me stop this car,” the sequestration clause was supposed to be a motivating threat, a nightmare scenario so horrific it would force a shotgun marriage between hawks and doves. It was not supposed to be a self-fulfilling nightmare.

Its leverage was to come from the mandate for across-the-board cuts that would inflict equal pain on defense and domestic spending, while also preventing budget gimmicks allowing agencies such as the Pentagon to shift money around from less-favored programs to pet projects.

What happened next was predictable, even if it was not entirely foreseen: There was stalemate. The first cuts were to take effect in fiscal 2013 and last through fiscal 2021, but they were largely avoided that year by an agreement that kept spending under the caps, setting a pattern of yearly battles to carve out small workarounds while skirting any grand bargain to lift the ever-more burdonsome sequester.

For example, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 provided relief from the arbitrary caps on defense spending, but still left each of the military services underfunded, undersized and unready to meet current and future threats, according to congressional critics and outside experts.

Mortgaging the future

Without question, the sequester straitjacket has saved money in the short term. From 2011 to 2014, the Pentagon’s budget fell by $100 billion. This year, Republicans in Congress tried and failed to add $18 billion to the defense budget to address urgent needs, but Democrats, who insist on dollar-for-dollar increases in domestic spending, have mostly blocked the move, although the bipartisan compromise fiscal policy bill is $3.2 billion more than what Obama requested.

In the world of defense, a penny saved today can mean many more pennies will need to be spent tomorrow.

“Things like multi-year contracts, developing long-term relationships with industry, where they can count on us and so on — that becomes very difficult,” Gen. Mark Milley, Army chief of staff, testified in September. “And what ends up happening is the price per unit goes up. So it’s built-in inefficiency. It’s built-in cost overruns. It’s not a good situation.”

The hidden costs of those inefficiencies may add up to billions of wasted dollars, but can seem abstract and thus less urgent. Yet the strain of five years of belt-tightening are showing up in lower readiness rates, sagging morale and delayed maintenance with little relief in sight.

At that September Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, McCain, the leading Republican voice in Congress on national security issues, warned that if sequestration continues for another five years, there will be a quarter of a trillion dollar gap between what the Pentagon needs and what it will get.

“What this means is that, over the next five years, our nation must come up with $250 billion just to pay for our current defense strategy and our current programs of record,” McCain said. “$250 billion just to do what we are planning to do right now, which I think many of us would agree is insufficient to meet our present, let alone our future, challenges.”

Red flags

People are not only the most important part of the military, but also the most expensive. And they’re the first to be hit by budgets cuts.

It’s difficult to quantify how much readiness funding has been cut because money to prepare troops and equipment to fight is scattered through many accounts. But experts agree that a lack of funding tends to snowball.

“Readiness is something that you have to continually invest in every single year because soldiers and sailors go without training, pilots can’t get in the air,” said Nora Bensahel, a distinguished scholar in residence at American University. “If Army folks can’t conduct live-fire exercises, then levels of readiness go down. … That’s a function of what they do every single day.”

Bensahel predicted that readiness accounts would keep taking the brunt in future years, especially as Congress chooses where the Pentagon may cut, refusing, for example, to allow the top brass to close down bases that are no longer needed.

“They’re coming close to an unacceptable level of risk, not just because they have to absorb cuts, but because they have to absorb them with large pieces of what they’d like to do taken off the table by Congress,” Bensahel said.

In the summer of 2015, when Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford was being confirmed as the new Joint Chiefs chairman and warned of “catastrophic consequences” from sequestration, the Army was making a painful announcement that it had to cut 40,000 active-duty soldiers whom it couldn’t afford but actually still needed.

In the summer of 2015, when Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford was being confirmed as the new Joint Chiefs chairman and warned of “catastrophic consequences” from sequestration, the Army was making a painful announcement that it had to cut 40,000 active-duty soldiers whom it couldn’t afford but actually still needed. (AP Photo)

“The Army has to operate within the budget provided. Part of doing that is restructuring and reorganizing to be able to accomplish the Army’s mission in the best manner possible,” said a grim-faced Brig. Gen. Randy George, the Army’s Force Management director at the time.

On top of the 40,000 troops, the Army must shed 17,000 civilian workers over the next three years, bringing down total strength from a peak of 570,000 soldiers in 2012 to just 450,000 by 2018. And deeper cuts are on the way.

“Unless the provisions of the Budget Control Act are changed or reversed, the Army will have to cut an additional 30,000 soldiers by 2019,” George said. “The resulting force would be incapable of simultaneously meeting current deployment requirements and responding to overseas contingency requirements of the combatant commands.”

The Army isn’t just getting smaller; it’s also losing its edge. Only two of the Army’s 60 brigade combat teams are at the highest level of combat readiness. The Heritage Foundation’s 2017 Index of Military Strength rated the Army as “weak.”

“The Army is smaller, older and weaker, a condition that is unlikely to change in the near future,” the report concluded.

To keep the front-line troops fully ready for combat, the Army is mortgaging its future by cutting troops and delaying necessary modernization, according to its top general.

“To mitigate the risk of deploying an unready force into future combat operations, the Army [is] fully funding and prioritizing readiness over end-strength modernization,” Milley testified in September.

The crisis in aviation

Nowhere is penny-pinching more painful than in Marine Corps aviation, where officials blame years of cuts, and delays in the F-35 fighter program, for leaving the Corps with too few planes and helicopters, and some aircraft so old they can be kept flying only by cannibalizing parts from other aircraft.

Perhaps the most infamous example was cited by Rep. Mac Thornberry, who told lawmakers this spring that when he visited Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, S.C., Marines told him they were so desperate for an out-of-production part for an F/A-18 Hornet that they actually scrounged one from a Hornet on display at the USS Yorktown museum in Charleston.

Cuts and delays in aircraft procurement have left pilots with too few planes and helicopters to fly, and some existing aircraft are so old they’re kept flying by cannibalizing other planes. (Bloomberg Photo)

In May, airmen reported having to search for aircraft parts in the Air Force’s “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.

It gets worse. In January, the Marines suffered one of their deadliest accidents in years, when two CH-53 helicopters collided during a training mission off the coast of Hawaii, killing all 12 Marines on board.

A contributing factor in the accident was that pilots had too few flight hours because there are not enough airworthy helicopters.

Thornberry warned, “If left unaddressed, [the problems] will invariably result in more tragic loss of life. It is clear that in the months, days and hours beforehand, the department failed these Marines.”

Pilots who don’t fly don’t stay

The Air Force, meanwhile, is facing a retention crisis. Funding cuts mean less flying for pilots not in war zones, which has pushed morale into a nosedive.

“Pilots who don’t fly, controllers who don’t control, cyberwarriors who don’t operate, because they are not given the resources to do so — morale goes down and they vote with their feet,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein during his confirmation hearing in June.

The Air Force will be 700 combat pilots short of requirements in coming years because many are lured away to better paid and less stressful jobs with commercial airlines.

In response, the Air Force plans to ramp up training of new F-16 pilots, and increase the retention bonus for drone pilots from $25,000 to $35,000.

The service would also like to increase the retention bonus for conventional pilots from $25,000 to $48,000, but that would require action by Congress.

As one Air Force major, a pilot identified by his call sign “Jack” told Voice of America recently, “If it’s up to just me, I definitely would stay in, but my family has a vote.”

But not everyone thinks a smaller military is a bad thing. Former Navy Secretary Gordon England argues that adding people just adds to the deficit because of the cost of the medical and retirement benefits that cannot be cut later.

“We’re going to be like the Europeans. We’re going to have people but no equipment, so this isn’t going to work,” England told the Washington Examiner.

England might argue that sequestration is hastening necessary change, replacing people with robots and other technology.

“Technology is going to have to become much more prevalent and, to be frank, you’re going to have to replace people in the services,” he said.

“Not a lot of the military is actually the fighting force. I mean, it’s not many people actually who are in combat. Most of them are in support functions, and other activities, and there should be a huge effort in terms of how do you replace all those people with technology and automated systems.”

“Things like multi-year contracts, developing long-term relationships with industry, where they can count on us and so on — that becomes very difficult,” Gen. Mark Milley, Army chief of staff, testified in September. (AP Photo)

Sequester under Trump

A deadlocked Congress hasn’t been able to repeal sequester limits. But President-elect Trump campaigned on a pledge to end it as soon as he’s in office.

In a speech before the National Guard Association in Baltimore this year, Trump promised to embark on a “major rebuilding of the entire military” to equip it with the latest state-of-the art weaponry and quickly end sequestration, which he called “a disaster.”

Repeal is possible, in theory, since Republicans retain control of both the House and Senate. But Democrats still have enough votes in the Senate to block action by filibuster. And fiscal hawks among the GOP aren’t in a hurry to restart major defense spending.

Even if Republicans can push through an increase, where will the money come from?

“Trump promised to grow the military … and end mandatory budget caps, but did not address other specific initiatives or how to pay for them,” said Bryan Clark, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, who calls the mandatory spending limits imposed by sequestration “the most significant and pervasive institutional challenge DoD faces today.”

Trump says the money will come from several areas, including “common-sense reforms that eliminate government waste and budget gimmicks.”

Among these, he cited improper government payments of more than $135 billion per year, unpaid taxes that he said could be $385 billion and a halt to funding programs not authorized in law, which he said could net almost $200 billion over 10 years.

An analysis of Trump’s ambitious military rebuilding plans by Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies concludes they are “too vague, and too military-service oriented, to have any real meaning.”

Cordesman adds, “They are not tied to any clear strategy, mission priorities, threat and time-scale, or defined in anything like the detail needed to determine their cost and budget impact.”

Trump’s plan would increase the Army from 450,000 active-duty soldiers to 540,000, the Marine Corps from 182,000 Marines to 200,000, Navy combat strength from 272 deployable ships to 350 and the number of combat aircraft in the Air Force from 1,141 to 1,200.

In gross terms, this would mean a 20 percent increase in the Army, 10 percent increase in the Marine Corps, 29 percent increase in the Navy and 5 percent increase in the Air Force, Cordesman writes.

That could add $50 billion-75 billion to the Pentagon’s base budget, not counting war-fighting costs.

In his September testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Army chief Milley acknowledged that the military is asking for a lot of money.

“The only thing more expensive than deterrence is actually fighting a war, and the only thing more expensive than fighting a war is fighting one and losing one,” Milley warned. “This stuff is expensive. We’re expensive. We recognize that, but the bottom line is it’s an investment that is worth every nickel.”

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