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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Pentagon Still Shell-Shocked by Sequester
Pentagon Still Shell-Shocked by Sequester
By Sandra I. Erwin



To say that the Defense Department was blindsided by the automatic budget cuts that hit the federal government last week is an understatement.

Most people in the Department of Defense were firmly convinced that the cuts would never happen, a senior Pentagon official said March 5.

“We did not see the writing on the wall,” said John B. Johns, deputy assistant secretary of defense for maintenance policy and programs.

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s blustery rhetoric about the impact that sequestration would have on the military was regarded as part of the necessary game the secretary had to play to protect the military budget. But Johns acknowledged that the Pentagon should have been better prepared for what was coming. Panetta's predecessor Robert Gates had warned the Pentagon bureaucracy and the defense industry in 2009 that the spigot of military spending that opened on 9/11 was closing. But most of the Pentagon did not really believe it would happen, at least until military forces were out of Afghanistan, Johns said during a question-and-answer session at a defense industry conference in Arlington, Va., hosted by Aviation Week and Space Technology.

“As a community, we thought money would continue to flow to us as long as we were in Afghanistan,” said Johns. “I believe many people thought that, and many people inside the building were saying that.”

As the Pentagon tries to come to grips with the new fiscal reality, it also has to deal with a growing credibility crisis. Republican lawmakers and pundits have blasted defense officials for “crying wolf” about sequestration and for having failed to prepare for across-the-board cuts that Congress put into the 2011 Budget Control Act as a mechanism to force both parties to agree to a deficit-reduction deal. Between August 2011 and November 2012, Pentagon officials repeatedly stated that they were not revising their budgets or making contingency plans for sequestration, and frequently pointed out that the cuts would be too damaging to even contemplate. That strategy clearly backfired, Johns noted.

The military accounts that are taking the biggest hit from sequestration are operations and maintenance, which pay for training, equipment repairs and overall combat readiness activities. But long before the prospect of sequester emerged, it had been known that the O&M accounts were under-funded, said Johns. Sequestration was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. “We could have predicted the pressure years ago and better prepare ourselves for it,” he said.

Gates’ push to cut overhead costs that began in 2009 lost steam soon after it started, he said. “Had we taken that a little more seriously as a community, we might be in a little better position than we are right now.”

The Pentagon had hoped for relief from Congress, and underestimated its political weakness. Since last fall, a parade of senior military and civilian leaders testified on Capitol Hill on numerous occasions about the potential consequences of sequestration. But they were mostly preaching ot the choir. The majority of the hearings were hosted by the pro-military House and Senate armed services committees. Those are “friendly faces,” Johns said. “The problem we have is in the other committees and with the members of Congress at large.” The House and Senate armed services' panels appreciated the Pentagon brass showing up to testify, he said, “but their effect on the overall community is not sufficient.”

Johns insisted that he was not suggesting that Congress is accusing the military of lying. “That could be one conclusion” but the most likely explanation for Congress turning a cold shoulder to the military is that they do not understand how the cuts are applied, he said. “That math needs to be explained to people,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s a credibility problem with the military or whether it’s a matter of convenience that some don’t want to understand.”

In hindsight, Johns said, the Pentagon should have anticipated the current budget crisis, regardless of sequestration. A decade of rapidly rising budgets blinded the building to reality. “We needed to start reducing infrastructure as we were building up for Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “Ideally we would have established capability during the 10 year ramp-up in anticipation of having to take it down. We didn’t really do that very well,” he sad. The Pentagon as a result is now saddled with crippling overhead costs that are spread over a declining workload.

Johns pushed back on the idea that senior military leaders have overhyped the impact of sequestration. Anyone who says that doesn't understand the math, Johns said. The outrage about the Navy cancelling an aircraft carrier deployment also reflects a lack of understanding of how the sequester works, he said.

Analysts have questioned why the Department of Defense should be treated as a sacred cow/ With a budget of $648 billion, the Pentagon should be able to find $43 billion of wasteful spending in order to meet the sequester target.

Johns said the reality is more complex. The O&M accounts in fact face a 40 to 60 percent cut over the next six months, he said. That is because of a combination of the sequester, of not having a full-year appropriation, budget cuts that President Obama directed in 2011, and his decision to exempt military personnel pay and benefits from the automatic cuts.
 
“We are not crying wolf,” Johns said. “These are real impacts.”

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Comments

Re: Pentagon Still Shell-Shocked by Sequester

"Analysts have questioned why the Department of Defense should be treated as a sacred cow/ With a budget of $648 billion, the Pentagon should be able to find $43 billion of wasteful spending in order to meet the sequester target."

Yet more garbage from the ignorant Sandra Erwin...

Firstly, the DOD has NEVER been treated as a sacred cow. Even before sequestration, it had contributed $900 BILLION dollars in deficit reduction, having been subjected to several series of cuts before sequestration.

These included the massive program cancellations of 2009 and 2010 ($330 bn), New START, the Gates Efficiencies Initiative ($178 bn), and the BCA's first (pre-sequestration) tranche of defense spending cuts ($487 bn). All told, even before sequestration, the DOD had contributed $900 bn to deficit reduction since 2009 alone. And that is despite the DOD accounting for just 17.58% of the total federal budget.

NO other federal agency or program has so far contributed ANYTHING to deficit reduction.

The DOD is not being, and has NEVER been, treated as a "sacred cow". Any claim that the DOD is being treated as such are blatant lies, and the people spreading them are children of the Father of Lies himself.

Secondly, the entire FY2013 military budget (not all of it being the DOD"s budget) is $611 bn - and that's before sequestration. It's not $648 bn. Not even close.

Thirdly, the amount of cuts required in FY2013 alone - in its last 7 months - is $46 bn. In every successive FY through FY2022, $55 bn in cuts is required. There ISN'T that much waste in the defense budget. Not even close. (Note: crucial weapon programs and facilities are not "waste.")

Fourthly, sequestration will cut everything outside personnel accounts UNIFORMLY by 10%, regardless of whether it's wasteful or not, and whether it's important or not. Everything - whether beef jerky or the Long Range Strike Bomber program - will be cut equally, by 10%. It will also force the military to postpone maintenance and depot availability for dozens of ships and hundreds, if not thousands, of aircraft, as well as shutting down entire fighter wings, and to cut procurement quantities and lengthen acquisition schedules (thus losing economies of scale).

By doing so, sequestration will make the problem of waste in the defense budget MUCH WORSE.

If those who decry DOD waste were REALLY concerned about it, they would be leading the campaign to CANCEL sequestration. But they don't. All they want is to see the military gutted.

Sequestration almost looks like a deliberate ploy by defense gutters to artificially create a lot of waste in the defense budget, through the sequester's haphazard, inefficient method of cutting, to have a pretext for more defense cuts.

Shame on Ms Erwin for lying so blatantly.
Zbigniew Mazurak at 3/8/2013 5:32 AM

Re: Pentagon Still Shell-Shocked by Sequester

Excellent article. An honest assessment of Pentagon failures, and the very dismal and toxic leadership by Panetta. The first letter is a classic example of big spenders who pretend they have cut things. All the "cuts" so far were to dreamy plans by the Pentagon for endless growth. The sequester merely requires rolling back spending to 2007 levels, and was enacted back in 2011. Even 2007 spending is 50% higher than 2002. 

And excellent example is military compensation, which has risen 90% the past decade. The Pentagon's on-line pay calculator shows a married E-1 starts at over $40,000 a year! LTCs make twice as much as Americans with Master's Degrees! Yet despite sequestration, basic pay went up over 3% each of the past two years, while fed civilian salaries were frozen. Even today, as our military is forcing troops out, no General is calling for a pay freeze, and still want a 1% raise next year!
Carlton Meyer at 3/9/2013 2:41 PM

Re: Pentagon Still Shell-Shocked by Sequester

The comment about E1 pay.  An E1 starts at a little over 18,000 a year.  Not 40,000.  You are looking at the max pay adding in housing entitlements and BAS when most junior Soldier live in the barracks and eat in the dining facility.  This means they cannot get these entitlements.  I have lost several friends and peers who were gave there life for the Army Pay that you say is to much.  I went and saw my buddy in the hospital right after he had his butt cheek half blown off and face peppered with shrapnel go get patched up and then come right back to the battlefield.  I have seen Soldiers cry as they carry their fellow Soldiers body to the plane to go back home.  I have seen families torn apart by the separation of Soldiers from thier family.  This does not even touch the surface of what Soldiers put on the line everyday for thier Country.  To comment that they are overpaid and compare it to a job in the average civlian community to base this on is just ridiculous.  I see so much waste by the goverment and you will never convince me that a Soldiers pay is part of that waste.  Get some comensense bean counters out and I truly believe we can save a lot of money without touching the pay of Soldiers that you feel are being paid to much.  I could go on discuss what can be cut but the fact is most people seem more concerned with blaming rather than really taking a close look at fixing the problem. 
Mike Astran at 3/13/2013 10:37 AM

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