Editorial: DoD in Denial

While it’s increasingly clear sequestration — or the deep defense cuts it triggered — is here to stay, the U.S. Defense Department still doesn’t appear to fully appreciate the magnitude of the budget challenges it faces, nor what to do about them.

Perhaps it’s shock. The Pentagon cut $487 billion from its 10-year budget last year, but its warnings that another $500 billion in automatic cuts over a decade would devastate military capabilities fell on deaf ears in Congress.

Both House and Senate versions of the 2013 budget retain deep cuts, and although many lawmakers favor giving DoD greater flexibility to execute them, they also say DoD can cut more.

Mackenzie Eaglen of the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank nailed it when she observed that everyone in Washington knows military spending is in for deeper cuts — except the Pentagon leadership.

Consider that the Pentagon’s widely respected comptroller Bob Hale has repeatedly said over the past few weeks that the 2014 budget — and five-year spending plan — DoD has prepared for Congress next month, won’t take sequestration’s new annual cuts into account.

After being accused of failing to more thoughtfully prepare for sequestration, it’s absurd, irresponsible and simply wasteful for the administration to devote thousands of man-hours preparing budget plans they know are higher than fiscal gravity or political reality will allow.

Equally worrying, DoD leaders appear to confuse the marketing campaign they concocted to scare Congress into avoiding sequestration with the actual plan to implement it now that the cuts have arrived. They have, effectively, painted themselves into a corner.

Indeed, DoD is redirecting its marketing pitch to the American public to gin up political support to stave off further cuts, a losing proposition in a climate where many in both political parties are willing to cut defense in service of other priorities, such as slashing overall government spending or protecting entitlements. DoD’s chief internal analyst, Christine Fox, at a conference last week was the latest senior official to intone that new cuts would force the Pentagon to make “draconian” choices that would damage U.S. military capabilities.

There’s no doubt that another half-trillion dollars in cuts would force the Pentagon to make far harder choices than it’s had to face in decades. And there’s no doubt that the U.S. military will not be able to do as much as it does now.

But to simply gut funds for operations and maintenance, slashing personnel and programs, and furloughing civilian workers isn’t the only way to cut spending, as some in the Pentagon proclaim. Moreover, continuing to insist the only option is to gut capabilities is beyond irresponsible, giving ammunition to those in both parties who want deeper cuts. DoD’s message that new cuts will yield a second-rate military might prompt some lawmakers to conclude that if the enterprise is at a tipping point, and they can’t spend more, then they might as well reap even bigger savings. In fact, the current approach is the on-ramp to the road leading to the dreaded three fives: five carriers, five divisions, five fighter wings.

Making matters worse, in a few years, the separate $80 billion annual account that funds Afghanistan operations will evaporate, forcing non-war items now in that budget to shift to the smaller base budget.

The time for gamesmanship is over; it’s time to get serious.

The administration and Congress owe DoD clear budget guidance and flexibility to make smart cuts and reforms. DoD must recognize its fiscal world has fundamentally changed. Hoping that Congress will ride to the rescue with an armload of cash is naïve. After years of soaring spending, cuts are coming and it’s time to embrace tectonic reforms.

As the leader of a still-dangerous world, America needs dominant military capability, which it can preserve only if it reforms and innovates. The fiscal crisis demands it, and gives cover to long-overdue changes across the enterprise.

Staying the course, however, will be a road to ruin that will take years, perhaps decades, to recover from.

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