The subject of sequestration is poised to take a significant role in coming weeks when Congress returns from its August recess and the presidential campaigns hold their respective party conventions. Sequestration’s meaning and its possible impact on the nation’s finances, particularly money spent on national security, may not yet be widely known, but nevertheless is being hotly contested within the national security field.
The process of sequestration aims to cut an additional $1.2 trillion over 10 years from the federal budget as a means of reducing the country’s deficit and was set in motion by last summer’s negotiations between the White House and Congress to raise the nation’s debt ceiling limit. The eleventh-hour borrowing agreement resulted in the Budget Control Act of 2011, in which both sides also agreed to $900 billion in spending cuts and set up a special committee tasked with identifying $1.2 trillion more in cuts over the next decade. If the committee failed to do so, blanket cuts to defense spending and other domestic programs would be automatically implemented under sequestration. The clock started ticking on sequestration after the committee announced last November that it was unable to agree on a deficit-reduction plan. Automatic cuts are set to start to take effect January 2, 2013, unless Congress acts in the meantime.
What sequestration means in terms of national security is largely shaped by the effect the automatic cuts would have on spending by the Department of Defense (DOD). Under sequestration, defense spending would be trimmed by $55 billion per year over the next 10 years. These annual cuts would be in addition to an already $487 billion budget reduction planned over the next decade by the Pentagon. In a House Armed Services Committee hearing on cuts under sequestration held earlier this month, Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned that sequestration would be a “major step” to creating “an unready, hollow” military force. Carter told the committee that sequestration in 2013 would cause the Pentagon to purchase four fewer F-35 fighter jets, one fewer P-8 aircraft, 12 fewer Stryker vehicles and 300 fewer Army medium and heavy tactical vehicles. The cuts could also lead to DOD partial hiring freezes or unpaid furloughs for civilian workers, he said. Executives at defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin Corp., the Pentagon’s biggest contractor, have also warned recently of possible layoffs or plant closures if sequestration goes into effect. In a June 21 report, the National Association of Manufacturers estimated 1 million jobs might be lost, including 130,000 manufacturing jobs, by 2014, as a result of defense spending cuts.
But would sequestration’s cuts jeopardize the country’s national security as Pentagon and industry officials claim or instead serve to reasonably trim a burgeoned U.S. defense industry? Facts and figures cited in a Salon.com article by Jeremiah Goulka argue the latter. In fiscal year 2012, Goulka states, U.S. spending on defense was set at about $676 billion. This amount means the U.S. spends five times more than China and Russia combined, according to the article citing the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The figure also illustrates a significant increase in military spending over the last decade, as top-line defense spending rose from $412 billion to $700 billion under George W. Bush, the article states. By comparison, under Ronald Regan military spending increased from $444 to $580 billion before settling at $524 billion, and George H.W. Bush reduced spending to $435 billion (in 2012 dollars). Goulka also argues that with 3,200 tactical combat aircraft – already about 1,000 more than China – in its arsenal, the US can afford to do without the $400 billion estimated cost of the threatened F-35 Joint Fighter Program – the most expensive weapon system procurement program in American history. Goulka claims similar reasoning of costs failing to justify needs applies to other defense programs that likely would be affected by sequestration.
Unfortunately, an earnest debate on an appropriate defense spending level sufficient to maintain national security is unlikely to occur because the issue arises within the political context of the final months of a presidential election and the larger battle between Republicans and Democrats over cuts to each party’s spending priorities
and possible tax hikes to address the country’s deficit. With little more than four months left before sequestration takes effect, expect another eleventh-hour agreement that offers only a short-term fix to an issue that deserves a more thoughtful analysis and long-term solution.