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Harsh Pentagon budget cuts

By ANDREW TAYLOR and DONNA CASSATA
July 31, 2013

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel chats with Air Force personnel Wednesday, July 17, 2013, at Joint Base Charleston near Charleston, S.C. Hagel was on the third day of a three-day trip to visit bases in the Carolinas and Florida. He told civilian Department of Defense workers that, if the department has to absorb another $52 billion in cuts next year because of the federal sequester, there will likely be layoffs instead of furloughs. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith)

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel chats with Air Force personnel Wednesday, at Joint Base Charleston near Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith)

A second, deeper round of automatic federal budget cuts is on its way, and it’s going to hit the Pentagon hard.

Already reeling from a $34 billion budget blow this year due to deficit-driven spending reductions known as sequestration, the Defense Department would feel an additional $20 billion punch in 2014. All told, the Pentagon’s budget for next year would be cut by about 10 percent below levels approved just six months ago.

Domestic programs are spared further automatic budget cuts, a little-known wrinkle that could give Democrats some advantage in upcoming negotiations over repealing sequestration — or at least easing its effects.

That reality is beginning to dawn in the federal government, which allowed this year’s $72 billion round of cuts to take effect. Officials have a few months to try to replace an even deeper round of cuts expected to take effect in January.

The situation is a product of the fallout of a budget law enacted two years ago that set up a deficit “supercommittee” with orders to come up with $1.2 trillion in deficit cuts over a decade. The law included the threat of the automatic cuts as a backstop intended to force a deal.

Sequestration was designed to be so painful that lawmakers would feel they had no choice but to act to prevent the automatic cuts. Instead, Congress managed to find only $24 billion in deficit cuts, leaving in place $72 billion in automatic spending reductions for 2013. About $17 billion of the automatic cuts came out of benefit programs — mostly from payments to Medicare providers. The other $55 billion was from the $1.043 trillion budget that Congress put together for day-to-day government operations. More than half of that goes to the Pentagon.

Democrats and President Barack Obama were the most anxious to reverse sequestration. Sensing that, GOP leaders were content to allow it to take effect.

The two sides have settled into a budget stalemate that shows no signs of easing — though talks between the White House and a handful of Senate Republicans have intensified in recent weeks.

Sen. John McCain, a leading Republican voice on national security issues, said he continues to work toward a budget deal that would end sequestration. But he’s clearly frustrated over the lack of progress and says he couldn’t predict success.

“The talks continue and continue and continue,” the Arizona Republican said.

Some lawmakers and staff aides say the new, deeper reductions in the Pentagon’s budget to could be the jolt that prompts lawmakers to step back from the automatic cuts.

“This is the primary motivator for undoing sequestration,” said Jennifer Hing, spokeswoman for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky. “Defense will take an enormous hit and it will not be something they can absorb overnight.”

The cuts are indeed daunting to the Pentagon, which has traditionally enjoyed sweeping bipartisan support from Congress and has seen its budget requests go mostly unchallenged during more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Come January, however, the Pentagon faces a cut of $54 billion from current spending if Congress fails to reverse the automatic cuts, according to calculations by Capitol Hill budget aides. The base budget must be trimmed to $498 billion, with cuts of about 4 percent hitting already reduced spending on defense, nuclear weapons and military construction. The roughly $78 billion budget for overseas military operations is exempt from sequestration.

Senior military officials have repeatedly warned about the devastating effects of the automatic cuts. Yet the Pentagon also appears resigned to the possibility that it will get no relief from sequestration and that defense hawks in Congress — outnumbered by GOP deficit hawks — will be unable to save the military budget.

The cuts would disproportionately hit modernization of aircraft, ships and weapons; operations and maintenance; training of the all-volunteer force; and health care. This is due in part because Obama exempted military personnel from the automatic cuts as well as additional money directed toward the war in Afghanistan.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, strongly suggested that the sequester could be deadly for U.S. military forces.

“What keeps me up at night is if I’m asked to deploy 20,000 soldiers somewhere, I’m not sure I can guarantee you that they’re trained to the level that I think they should be over the next two or three years because of the way sequestration is being enacted,” Odierno said in remarks Monday at the American Enterprise Institute. “We’ll still send soldiers … but they will not have been able to train collectively the way we would like. … That means operations would take longer but, most importantly, it probably equals more casualties.”

Congress has shown little inclination to undo the sequester, and many lawmakers seem content with cuts in defense spending as the United States cleans up after the war in Iraq and winds down another in Afghanistan.

The warnings from the military have largely gone unheeded.

“Frankly, I’m surprised because really bad things are happening to the military and it’s doesn’t seem to be having an effect here,” McCain said.

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One Response to Harsh Pentagon budget cuts

  1. Keith

    July 31, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    “Frankly, I’m surprised because really bad things are happening to the military and it’s doesn’t seem to be having an effect here,” McCain said.

    Mr. McCain, the only “really bad thing” happening is that all those trillions of dollars that have been steadily flowing to you and your your fat cat buddies in the “Terrorist Industrial Complex” is now starting to dry up. That SHOULD have happened after the Cold War ended nearly two decades ago.

    What’s still unfortunate, however, is that the military is notorious for buying the latest, multi-billion dollar defense “toy” to the detriment of programs that sustain the force…namely for Operations and Maintenance (O&M) of those weapons systems we already have in the inventory.

    Or, to put it another way, whenever there’s cutbacks in funding, O&M seems to always become the “orphan’s orphan”.

    As I see it, the US military can EASILY absorb cuts of $58 Billion (or more) a year without missing a step, just from forcing strict accountability and hard priority-setting among the military brass.

    It also seems to me that a good place to start looking for those savings would be in cutting that $800 Billion a year the US Government now throws down a rat hole every year chasing after Bedouins in tents.

    As President Eisenhower once said, “We will bankrupt ourselves in the vain attempt for absolute security.”

    Clearly, that’s EXACTLY what the Government of the United States of America has been obsessively doing for the last two decades.