The Case for Repealing Sequestration

By Arnold L. Punaro
February 2015 was one of the coldest on record in the nation’s capital. An icy reception on Capitol Hill also accompanied the administration’s fiscal year 2016 budget request. This year will either be a turning point away from sequester levels or the ship of state will crash head on into the sequester iceberg resulting in a titanic disaster.

After the precipitous sequester cuts in 2013, Congress provided a compromise for 2014 and 2015 with a flat, but stable budget level for national security. For 2016 and the years covered by the future years defense plan, the administration has proposed lifting the sequester caps and increasing the defense budget over them by $162 billion. The chairs of both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have recommended an even higher level.

While the Ryan-Murray compromise provided stability and predictability for two years, during the first three years of sequestration, the Defense Department had to make 70 percent of the sequester level cuts, or $119 billion.

The challenge we face is getting Congress to warm up to the concept of sequester relief in a world that is more dangerous and more unstable than it was in 2011 when the Budget Control Act was passed. Three years later, the world looks very different. Threats are gathering and spreading like wildfire. A resurgent Russia has annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine. Syria has fallen apart creating a regional conflagration that has undone eight years of work the United States carried out in Iraq. ISIL is brutally killing Syrians, Iraqis and Americans while carving out a caliphate in northern Iraq and Syria. China is attempting to change the status quo in the South China Sea.

But neither world events nor the changeover in control of the Senate has altered the congressional math: Deficit hawks appear to still outnumber defense hawks.

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen famously said the debt was the greatest threat to our national security. I agree with him.

But I would like to add three equally important appendices to his statement. First, sequestration does nothing at all to fix either the short- or long-term drivers of our debt. Second, it actually worsens inefficiencies in the department by introducing wasteful turbulence and uncertainty. Last, it conveys a misleadingly diminished picture of our power in the eyes of friends and foes alike.
As retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis testified recently, “No foe in the field can wreak such havoc on our security that mindless sequestration is achieving today.” When it comes to our national security, we have met the enemy, and he is us.

There are three essential elements to maintaining the world’s finest military: high quality personnel, constant realistic training and the best technology the nation can provide.

When sequestration first took effect, it had real consequences, contrary to what some believe. The first cuts fell on readiness and resulted in units that became non-deployable. Who in the Congress, looking at the global environment today, believes we should be less trained and less ready to respond to emergencies overseas? Yet we know from experience that readiness will continue to suffer if sequestration returns in fiscal 2016.

After readiness, the cuts then fall on modernization. At a time when other nations are making increased investments, the United States is cutting back. Allowing other countries to outpace us in modernization invites adventurism on their part. Is it mere coincidence that other major powers are testing the boundaries of international norms when we signal weakness, not strength?

Sequester relief is desperately needed in the short-term. However, in the long-term it will not solve the larger problems we have in our defense budget, which has been funding fewer and fewer war fighting units over the last 30 years or more.

The reason is that we are paying much more for less in terms of our military force structure and our modernization programs. The Defense Department also continues to pay for a much larger overhead and infrastructure than is needed. We must ensure we are spending that money wisely and putting in place the reforms necessary to get more bang for the buck for the taxpayer and the war fighter.

In his first testimony on Capitol Hill as Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter said: “Under sequestration, which is set to return in 212 days, our nation would be less secure. [S]equestration threatens our military’s readiness, the size of our warfighting forces, the capabilities of our air-naval fleets, and ultimately the lives of our men and women in uniform.

“The great tragedy is that this corrosive damage to our national security is not the result of objective factors, logic or reason. It’s not that we have some new breakthrough in military technology or some novel strategic insight that somehow provides the same security for a smaller budget.

“It’s not even that these cuts solve the nation’s overall fiscal challenges, because the sad math is that they are large and sudden enough to damage a fence, but fail to resolve our long-term fiscal issues and the real drivers of the deficit and debt.”

NDIA has taken Carter’s words seriously and in the coming months will be working closely with the Pentagon leadership, Armed Services Committee Chairmen Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and others to steer the ship of state away from the sequester iceberg.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Policy

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