Navy Chief Bearish on Sequester

By Sandra I. Erwin

Hope is dimming fast that Congress will undo the sequester budget cuts, said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert.

"I'm not very optimistic," he told an audience of Wall Street investors Dec. 3 during a conference in New York City hosted by Credit Suisse and McAleese & Associates.

As budget negotiators in Washington seek to strike a deal to avert another government shutdown Jan. 15, Defense Department officials, senior military leaders and industry CEOs have called on lawmakers to delay or cancel the automatic cuts. The 29-member House-Senate panel faces a Dec. 13 deadline to set funding levels for federal agencies for fiscal year 2014.

The sequester would slash $1.2 trillion from defense and civilian agency budgets across the board through 2021. The White House, congressional Democrats and Republican defense hawks oppose the cuts. Fiscal conservatives in the House want to keep sequester in place. The budget conference — led by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. — is expected to consider scenarios to replace the sequester but only temporarily.

Greenert acknowledged that military leaders' dire warnings of the impact of sequester on the armed forces have done little to move the parties from their entrenched positions. Some lawmakers have proposed giving the Defense Department some breathing room by allowing it greater authority to manage sequester cuts within the spending caps.

Under sequester, defense spending in 2014 would plummet from the administration's request of $552 billion to $498 billion.

The budget committee does not appear to be working on a "big deal to end sequester," Greenert said. "I don't see it."

One reason why the military service chiefs may have had less power than expected to shape budget decisions is that they were communicating their concerns to friendly defense committee staffers who have little say on the budget.

"I talk to defense staffers," Greenert said. "They sort of get it. But they are not the mass that carries" the biggest clout in budget negotiations, he said. "It took me a while to learn and understand that."

The fiscal hawks who run the show in the House of Representatives are less sympathetic to the military's pleas. Military leaders, said Greenert, need to reach out to members outside of defense committees. "That's kind of the story today."

As the reality of dramatically smaller budgets sinks in, it falls on the leaders of the Defense Department to “define the future,” which means making adjustments to the size and shape of the force, said Greenert. “Let's define reality … that's what leaders do. We deal with it.” If the lower budget caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act become the new normal, the Navy will have to get smaller, said Greenert. Once funding levels and the size of the force are set, “I can put together a ready Navy,” he said. “My nightmare is that we go two or three more years building a budget that exceeds the BCA caps. We go to the Hill. We tell them what we want. We talk about it. Then we get sequestered.” That was the situation in 2013 and the same is likely to occur in 2014. Proposing a budget that is destined to be sequestered with no proper planning is “really inefficient and a bad way to go,” he said.

Greenert’s take on the Pentagon’s so far unproductive efforts to push back the sequester echoes thefrustration of pro-Navy lawmakers who have not been able to convince their colleagues to spare the military from the ax.

Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower and projection forces, has called for stronger advocacy about the impact of shipbuilding budget cuts on national security. But members other than Forbes and a handful of allies have shown little interest or desire to engage in this debate.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Leadership, Shipbuilding

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