Pentagon's Budget Not Yet Aligned With Obama's Strategic Shift
The much-publicized “pivot to the Pacific,” where a rising China presents a risk to U.S. and international interests, favors air and sea power. Yet, the "strategic shift is not reflected in this budget,” Todd Harrison, a senior fellow of defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said Feb. 17. “You can’t expect the shift to happen overnight. It won’t happen in one year. But you would expect there to be some stability, some equality of the cuts.”
An ongoing ground war in Afghanistan is part of the cause for the confusing trend, said Harrison, who spoke at an Air Force Association forum. The Army and Marine Corps were able to offset some of their end-strength cuts by moving funding for some active duty forces to the war budget. War funds are exempt from the automatic cuts that are mandated by the Budget Control Act and could take effects in January. The Army and Marine Corps will continue to employ this funding tactic as much as possible, Harrison said.
Neither the Air Force nor the Navy had this option. In fact, discounting classified funding that flows through the Air Force to other agencies and the Army’s overseas contingency funding, the Army fairs better and the Air Force worse, when comparing base budget reductions, said Harrison.
“The Army and Marine Corps get a disproportionate portion of war funding, as they should,” he said. U.S. war deployments peaked with 250,000 troops. That has dropped to about 90,000 and the wars are ending. So you would think we could begin to dramatically draw down the force. We didn’t see that in FY13.”
Reapportionment of defense spending in favor of the Navy and Air Force could still occur, and Harrison expects it will if the Pacific-centric strategy becomes a reality.
Still, neither the Air Force nor the Navy suffered cuts to their big-ticket weapon systems. The Navy made significant cuts in other areas to keep its carrier fleet at 11. Its newest Virginia-class submarine will be postponed for a year while the delay or termination of 17 ships paid to keep the carrier fleet as is.
While the Air Force will cut seven combat squadrons, but all are tactical or transport aircraft like the A-10, older F-16s and the C-27. No bombers, like the aging B-52 were pulled from service.
Still, “the services’ share of the overall budget seems to be going the opposite direction of the new strategic guidance,” Harrison said.
The strategy, he noted, will be dead on arrival if Congress cannot avoid a sequestration by 2013, which would cut an additional $50 billion a year in defense spending over the next decade. Without a compromise, sequestration will blindly slash between 10 percent and 16 percent from every Pentagon account.
The probability that such drastic and automatic cuts mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act could happen increases with each passing day, he said. So far, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other high-ranking Pentagon officials have said they will not make contingency budget plans for sequestration..
“I think it is a mistake not to at least think about it,” Harrison said. “I don’t think there’s a greater than 50-percent chance it could happen, but it’s growing more likely. All that is required for that to happen is inaction,” on the part of Congress.
If and when Pentagon officials decide it is prudent to plan for sequestration, Harrison offered four options: Do nothing, offer an amended budget request, pad the war budget temporarily, or draft a plan of gradual reductions that would still meet the $1 trillion in cuts by the end of the decade.
Of the four, the last is preferred. He suggested an annual decline in defense spending of 2.2 percent for 10 years. That would allow for careful, strategic assessment of where the budget axe should wound the deepest.
“That would achieve a more rational decline than simply having the budget go off a cliff beginning in 2013,” he said. “You’re still achieving the same cuts in the end and it would allow [the Defense Department] to plan strategically for the downturn.”