Sequester: What Does It Mean for US Military Might ? (Andrei Akulov, Strategic Culture Foundation, 6 marzo 2013)

06.03.2013 05:50

On March 1, 2013 President Barack Obama signed into law a directive triggering the sequester. It refers to future automatic «across the board» spending reductions to the United States federal budget. The cuts were enacted by the Budget Control Act of 2011. The act specified $917 billion in cuts over 10 years in exchange for the initial debt limit increase of 900 billion dollars and established the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, or the «super committee», to produce a deficit reduction bill with some 1.2 trillion dollars in cuts by the end of 2011. If the 12-member congressional committee, which comprises six congressmen from each party, failed to put forward the bill, a punitive mechanism, or the sequester, would operate to cut government spending by 1.09 trillion dollars each fiscal year. Now $85 billion cuts go into effect to be deleted from this year’s budget and a number of government agencies will see their funding slashed. Roughly half of all cuts fall on the Pentagon. The second half will be implemented on domestic non-military spending. Obama has blamed the austerity on Republicans, who refused to close tax loopholes used by the rich and corporations combined with more targeted spending cuts. According to the President, «Most people agree I'm presenting a fair deal. The fact that they don't take it means that I should somehow, you know, do a Jedi mind meld with these folks and convince them to do what's right».

$ 42 billion in mandatory cuts to the U.S. defense budget has gone into effect. On March 27, an additional $ 6 billion in defense cuts from the Administration's budget request will add up to the sum. 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. Military pay and benefits are exempt from the sequester. 

The next decisive moment is a bill to fund government operations, which Congress must pass by March 27, or see the government shut down.

Military brass sounds alarm

On February 13 the US military brass hats met the Senate Armed Forces Committee to discuss the across-the-board cuts after March 1 sounding the alarm about the dangerous impact of the cuts on the combat-readiness of US troops and the nation’s global image. The Chiefs of Staffs of all four services were unanimous in the assessment that sequestration would affect recruitment, training, maintenance and degrade arms and equipment.

According to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E.Dempsey, the sequestration will «put the nation at greater risk of coercion». Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said it would «invite aggression»! Incumbent Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the reductions would «devastate» the military. General James Amos, Commandant of the Marin Corps, goes even further in warning that a failure to properly resource the military will put the «continued prosperity and security interests» of the United States at risk. Sounds very much like the end of the world, the sky is falling down. 

800,000 Pentagon employees could face furlough, one day each week beginning in April. About 108,000 defense civilian employees could lose their jobs in 2013. The sequestration could double the existing $6 billion shortfall Operations and Maintenance Funding. It's estimated that the DOD would have to cut 11 percent of its budget each year to reach the $ 55 billion cuts. The sequester would affect all sorts of programs, including research and development as well as reduce the number of awarded government contracts. There will be cuts in weapons development, missile defense and space-based communications. As yet no specifics have been released on what programs could be chopped, but the biggest could be in the fifth generation fighter aircraft: the F-22 and F-35. The Army, Navy and Air Force have announced cancellation of their scheduled depot maintenance activity for the last six months of the fiscal year. 

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno called his service’s fiscal outlook dire. The Army will curtail training for 80 percent of ground forces and will cut across all specialties. For fiscal 2014 and beyond, sequestration will result in the loss of at least an additional 100,000 personnel from the active Army, the Army National Guard and the Army Reserve. The personnel preparing to deploy to Afghanistan this year may have to stay well past 12 months.

The Navy is terminating temporary employees and implementing a temporary hiring freeze. The service anticipates reducing flight operations and steaming days for deployed forces, canceling deployments, deferring more maintenance on ships and aircraft, suspending most non-deployed operations such as training and certifications. According to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, «We will not be able to respond in the way the nation has expected and depended.» He thinks the Navy would not be able to carry out drug interception, counter-piracy, rapid response units in Africa and overseas ballistic missile defense missions. In addition, the Navy has postponed the planned overhaul of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and stopped work on the current overhaul of the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. Two carrier strike groups won’t be deployed as planned. The service will be forced to shut down four air wings, and after 90 days pilots will lose their certifications and have to be retrained.

Gen. Mark A. Welsh, the Air Force Chief of Staff, told the senators that sequestration would affect every account and program in his service. «It will result in loss of over 200,000 flying hours», he added. «While we will protect flying operations in Afghanistan and other contingency areas - nuclear deterrents and initial flight training - roughly two-thirds of our active-duty combat Air Force units will curtail home-station training, beginning in March, and will drop below acceptable readiness levels by mid-May. Most will be completely non-mission capable by July». Missions overseas and joint training with friendly foreign militaries will likely be canceled, along with cutting back on pilot training — dropping about 200,000 flight hours in this year alone. On March 1 the Air Force grounded all of its aircraft not directly associated with near term combat, combat replacement or special missions. The Chief-of-Staff warned the USAF would need to «look completely» at the F-35 program and cut the number of aircraft in the service.

General James Amos, Commandant of the Marin Corps warned that a failure to properly resource the military will put the «continued prosperity and security interests» of the country at risk. The Marine Corps is decreasing from wartime high of over 200,000 troops to roughly 182,000 in a couple of years. Gen. James Amos projected that 50 percent of his combat units will be below the «minimal acceptable levels of readiness for deployment to combat» by the end of the year.

The Special Operations Command is an exclusion from the rule. It is scheduled for spending and personnel increases while the rest of the military is in for cuts. End strength will top off at 70,000. In fact, the number of operators has doubled since 9/11, and their budget tripled — from $3.5 billion to $10.5 billion. The trend will likely continue in a shift to «smaller footprint» type operations.


The military commanders and many members of Congress have warned of catastrophic, «dire» and «devastating» cuts would make the military a «hollow force». According to the New York Times Amy Belasco, a defense specialist with the Congressional Research Service concluded that the services would retain some discretion to shift funds to critically needed accounts. «Some key programs – aircraft for the Air Force and tracked vehicles for the Army, for instance — would actually be financed at levels above the Pentagon’s original request in part because Congress increased some funding in the 2013 spending bill. And she suggested that commanders are planning to cut readiness about twice as much as they need to and would be better off spreading the reductions within operations and maintenance accounts». (1) After 9/11, the military budget soared from $397 billion in 2001 to $557 billion in 2013. Spending is expected to decline in real terms, but after that it will rise slightly, experts say. By some calculations, President Obama will still spend more on defense than most postwar presidents. 

In reality, the cuts to the Pentagon budget, while significant, would return the United States to budget levels that it last reached in fiscal year 2007. Today, there are no US troops in Iraq, and the US war in Afghanistan is quickly winding down. At that, the United States accounts for about half of global military spending. Some degree of restraint is expedient in the times of economic woes. The US is ending its overseas wars; there are no serious security threats. If the US military can't reduce its budget now, it would never do it. To avoid cuts to the operations and maintenance the military  could look elsewhere, for instance, the $32bn to spend on nearly 2,000 new ground combat vehicles, the Navy's new Littoral Combat Ship or the bloated 4,000 man staff in the Joint Chiefs of Staff office, as well as other staff positions. There is no reason why the military cannot survive on a budget of $500bn. The problem is that the US military leadership cannot adapt to change and reform. The DOD started to work on the sequestration plan too late - only in December 2012. The military continues to spend money on troubled weapons.

Defense budget expert Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based policy think tank, told Russian RIA Novosti on Wednesday that some of these officials’ dire warnings are «dramatizations». «For example, our force will not become hollow and we will not fall from superpower status and capability», O’Hanlon said, though he added that the cuts are «at best hugely disruptive and a hugely inefficient policy». The cuts would indeed «affect readiness» – primarily in training and maintenance – but their greatest impact may not be directly linked to the battlefield, O’Hanlon said. (2) Some defense budget analysts say reining in the Pentagon’s funding would be prudent fiscal policy and could be done without harming national security.

«The idea of reducing defense spending by $500 billion over the next 10 years is a good one. Such a cut would represent only a 7% reduction to the defense budget in real terms and would bring defense spending back to where it was in 2006 in real dollars, at the height of the Iraq war. And defense spending would still be higher in inflation-adjusted dollars than the Cold War average. Even if sequestration took effect, the United States would also still spend more than the next 14 nations in the world combined, most of whom are allies. If these $500 billion in cuts are phased in and done in a smart way, they would not hurt our national security but will in fact have a positive impact», former Pentagon official Lawrence Korb and Max Hoffman of the Center for American Progress wrote in a recent essay for CNN. (3) «After more than a decade of war, it is time to get real about reducing defense spending», add the experts. 

The US military also faces the problems engendered by the cutting edge they have achieved to ensure the «global dominance». It is a leading high-precision, network-centric operations force of the information warfare age. But the cost of high-precision systems and munitions has become an unbearable burden. On a number of occasions I have compared it to the battleships sailing to sea in the days of WWII. The ship’s home country was more worried about possible damage or loss than the enemy – the battleship effect. A ship of the type was too costly to lose. The US weapons systems and high-precision munitions have become too costly to lose too while hitting an inexpensive target like a T-55 tank, for instance.

It was proven by the events in Libya – the cost of a projectile has become comparable with the damage inflicted, something unheard of in the military history (used to be 4-5 times less). 

Actually, with cuts taking effect, there is nothing significant reduced. The Army armor inventory is saturated with over 8 thousand Abrams and 6 thousand Bradley fighting vehicles and 4 thousand Strykers. 10-11 aircraft carriers are enough for sea superiority. The Arleigh Burke destroyers and the Ticonderoga cruisers present a formidable force. The Virginia class attack submarines 30 ship program is well in effect as the new NDAA shows. F/A-18E/F and EA-18G are affordable with a price tag of around $50-60 million a plane. The flat top – based X-47B is a serious boost to sea air power capability. It makes the Navy aviation practically unaffected by the F-35 (JSF-joint strike fighter) problems. True the Air Force F-16 fleet is aging and F-35 and F-22 are good examples of battleship effect. The UAVs are not a real substitute; these are anti-guerilla weapons limited in range and payload, they are no match for tactical aviation. So, the only real problem is the replacement of tactical aviation aircraft, the difficulty engendered by those who overlook the programs and by the battleship effect. 

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Defense consumes almost 20 percent of the U.S. budget. The country spends more on it than anything else. At present, the military expenditure exceeds combined military spending of all other countries in the world.

The woes faced by US Armed Forces testify to the fact that maintaining the «global dominance» and accomplishing the mission set to protect «vital interests» everywhere in the world comes in contradiction with economic realities. To great extent the current difficulties experienced by the US economy are attributed to the fact that it cracked under the heavy weight. The war in Iraq cost US taxpayers $3 trillion, another half a trillion dollars have been spent on the military operation in Afghanistan. At the same time the cutting age weapons and high-precision munitions are becoming golden assets, the battleship effect at work. The US is facing overstretching, to great extent the problem is a result of living beyond the means and spending too much on wars, the adventures of dubious nature like Iraq. No way the sequester puts to doubt the US global commitments, make it curb its foreign presence or cede the supremacy to anyone else. The fact that the special operations forces are immune from cuts is a good example… 

The situation is largely the consequence of the privileged position the US has long enjoyed in the global economy. The era is nearing its end and the only option left is austerity. The population aging, it is certain to lead to growing pressures on the federal budget. The days of munificence for the US, a land of the free-spenders, are over. Reining in the military funding would be a wise thing to do to serve the interest of common Americans.