Unless Congress and President Obama agree to change the current law, $42 billion in mandatory cuts to the U.S. defense budget will go into effect immediately. On March 27, an additional $6 billion in defense cuts from the Administration’s budget request will also go into effect. These reductions, which will be applied retroactively to this year’s defense budget, do not apply to military personnel and overseas operations; therefore, they are to be taken out of only a portion of the defense budget including readiness funding and equipment acquisition. This will have devastating effects on current military operations. These cuts come in addition to the unprecedented $487 billion in defense cuts to be carried out over the next ten years as required by the Budget Control Act of 2011.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called this budget sequestration, a “meat ax” approach to budget cutting that will force the Administration to reexamine its entire national defense strategy, announced only one year ago. Not only would the half a trillion dollars in cuts over the next decade “hollow out the force,” it would reduce the United States to a “second-rate power,” Panetta said.
Sequestration would not only slash U.S. military resources and capacities, but would also directly impact the health of the U.S. economy, which would be felt immediately as 800,000 Department of Defense and Armed Services civilian employees would see their pay reduced 20 percent over the remainder of the fiscal year through furloughs, with the high likelihood that many of those jobs will be phased out over time. Untold thousands of layoffs will occur in the defense and aerospace sector where more than one million Americans work. Government-funded research and development, which has historically propelled the civilian economy, will be curtailed.
Strategically, sequestration would so degrade U.S. military capabilities that it would become highly questionable whether current and projected threats to the country could be met. New global crises might not be responded to and U.S. commitment to existing crises would have to be reduced.
In the Middle East, numerous countries with which the United States enjoys partnerships, including major non-NATO ally Israel and the friendly but fragile monarchy in Jordan, would be impacted by sequestration. Israel, the only democracy in the region, is a trusted friend to the United States in numerous security related areas as well as an important trading partner.
Sequestration would cut foreign aid to Israel by $263.5 million this fiscal year. Since Congressional funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system was not a budgetary line item, if Congress and the White House cannot agree on a budget, $211 million meant to assist Israel in producing more Iron Dome systems, which save lives and were a major factor in allowing Israel to moderate its response to Hamas rocket attacks, will be cut from the FY2013 budget. Similarly, funding for the Arrow High Altitude Missile Defense System and the David’s Sling Medium Altitude Missile Defense System would be reduced by nearly nine percent. U.S. and Israeli firms jointly own both systems and the global market for missile defense is vast. Funding reductions would likely result in the loss of sales opportunities, and hence jobs, in a field where joint U.S.-Israel products dominate.
As of last year, the Department of Defense’s own strategic guidance analysis projected that in the Middle East, the United States must be focused on countering violent extremists and destabilizing threats to allies and partner states, particularly from Iran, as well as preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon capability. To support these objectives, the Pentagon analysis noted, the United States must continue to place a premium on U.S. and allied military presence in – and in support of – partner nations. Current defense cutbacks and the sequester will make the prospects for achieving this goal highly unlikely.
Cutbacks in aircraft carrier operations will have serious repercussions for critical stability operations in the Middle East. For the past several years the United States increased its military presence in the region, maintaining an aircraft carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf and a second carrier strike group in the Arabian Sea. These two deployments have been vital in America’s ability to deter Iran from efforts to intimidate our Arab partners through aggressive behavior and, perhaps, from taking direct action to block the Straits of Hormuz, the vital waterway through which 20 percent of the world’s crude oil flows. Such an act – or even a serious threat of it – would deal a severe blow to the U.S. and world economies. No country would escape the dramatic negative economic effects of this action.
Two weeks ago and on just three days notice, the U.S. Navy was forced to cancel the deployment of the USS Harry S. Truman to the Persian Gulf. This cancellation reduced America’s naval presence in the Gulf by half and comes just as Iran is scheduled to restart negotiations with the P5 +1 on its nuclear weapons intentions. The reduction can only weaken America’s negotiating position, sending the wrong signal to a country that already believes America to lack resolve with potentially chilling consequences.
The choice not to employ air bases for combat flight operations in the Middle East – whether in Afghanistan, Bahrain or in other Gulf states – means that the U.S. Navy has shouldered the lion’s share of strike operations in the region at the high cost of wearing out the naval air fleet far more rapidly than was ever anticipated or budgeted for.
Massive, across the board cuts in the training of U.S. service members and in the maintenance of their equipment have already begun. While units in combat or the very next to go to combat will receive adequate funding for training and equipment, the armed services are being forced to take risk on the training of follow-on forces.
On March 1, the Air Force will ground all of its aircraft not directly associated with near term combat, combat replacement or special missions. The Army, Navy and Air Force have announced cancellation of their scheduled depot maintenance activity for the last six months of the fiscal year. There is also an economic impact to these false maintenance savings: the U.S. Navy estimates that slipping a ship’s necessary maintenance period costs 2.6 times as much to do the same work when the next shipyard slot opens, usually two years later.
The impacts of these training and maintenance cuts are insidious. By this fall, the armed services’ rotational deployment capacity, i.e., the ability to put ships and aircraft on station or into theater and stay there, will be curtailed for years. The ability to exert global persistent presence has been the cornerstone of America’s approach to crises that have no clear conclusion. The armed services will extend currently deployed forces as long as they can but when they return, the forces whose turn it will be to replace them will not be ready to go if they were not trained and equipped this summer. The Service Chiefs have testified that by this fall even if funding were restored, it would take up to nine months to return those forces to deployable readiness.
A permanent reduction to defense spending on the scale of the sequestration will cause a retrenchment in American foreign policy and overseas engagement. The Pentagon’s strategic guidance places a premium on U.S. and allied military presence in the Middle East along with an increased emphasis on the Pacific. As the effects of the sequestration begin to bite, the result will be further reductions in presence. Additionally, U.S. military support for the capacity and capability development of partner nation forces will be significantly diminished.
Crippling the U.S. military’s ability to project power will embolden those countries given to hegemonic behavior and result in an increase in conflicts across the planet and, as a consequence, increase loss of life and intensify disruptions to the global economy. The very high degree to which America’s worldwide presence makes possible the smooth flow of global commerce is rarely appreciated.
Congress and the Obama administration must act responsibly to support a robust American national defense capability. Allowing U.S. military resources and capacity to be curtailed through the ham-handed methodology of sequestration would constitute a dereliction of duty by both.
James Colbert is Policy Director at JINSA
JINSA was founded in 1976 as a non-profit, non-partisan organization to advocate on behalf of a strong U.S. military, a robust national security policy, and a strong U.S. security relationship with Israel and other like-minded democracies.