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Gard and Olson: Pentagon Should Be Preparing for Sequestration Ax

The Pentagon’s new strategic guidance and corresponding budget request have effectively shifted the focus away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan toward the threats of the future.

Current Defense Department proposals, however, do not account for the possibility of an additional automatic cut, or sequestration, which will go into effect in January if there is no agreed alternative proposal.

This additional reduction, triggered by the November failure of the Congressionally mandated super committee to reach a consensus on future budget reductions, would impose an additional $472 billion in cuts to defense spending over the next decade.

The size of the sequestration cut would not be disastrous, as some claim. A former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Gen. James Cartwright, noted that “achieving the [original] $487 billion in cuts was sufficiently doable that it didn’t require really hard decisions. … Unless you force them into it, those hard decisions just don’t get made. Everybody buys everything they want.”

While a near-doubling of that original number, as required by sequestration, might require the Pentagon to make some real choices, in reality it would return the base budget to approximately the level it was in fiscal 2007, after adjusting for inflation. In fact, under sequestration the base Pentagon budget would still grow by about 10 percent in nominal terms over the next decade, as opposed to about
18 percent projected by the president’s budget request last year.

Sequestration as currently programmed, however, is undeniably flawed. At its outset, sequestration was never designed as sensible policy. Instead, it was intended to force political compromise, encouraging Democrats to agree to domestic spending cuts and Republicans to agree to tax increases.

As such, the trigger works as something of a “meat ax,” in Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s words.

The policy is designed so that major cuts would take place immediately, forcing the Pentagon to deal with a sharp drop-off in spending and then a gradual increase over time. Further, because the law requires that cuts be applied uniformly across accounts and programs, sequestration would deny the Defense Department flexibility to shift its focus to those forces deemed most relevant to future threats.

Knowing that President Barack Obama has vowed to “veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts to domestic and defense spending,” Members of Congress are now searching for alternatives to sequestration that include some combination of increased government borrowing and higher taxes.

But none of these options is likely to succeed prior to the November elections, and any suggestion that Congress roll back sequestration for the Pentagon alone is probably a nonstarter because it would devastate the average American at a time when the economy is already in a fragile state.

Rather than spin its wheels or continue to pretend that sequestration is a fictional ideal, the Pentagon should work with Congress to develop an alternative budget amendment coupled with a revised defense strategy that takes further cuts into account.

This strategic approach would allow the Pentagon to propose where defense cuts take place while protecting other priorities and giving responsible defense officials the opportunity to program the cuts over time.

Regardless of whether an eventual compromise is likely, nothing can be certain. If the Pentagon hopes to undo the worst aspects of sequestration, it must be more proactive. Rather than being caught in the political gridlock of Washington, D.C., the Pentagon must plan ahead by anticipating further cuts now, before it is too late.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Robert Gard Jr. is chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Laicie Olson is senior policy analyst at the center.

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