Washington's looming defense "sequester" would slash the Pentagon's budget by $55 billion a year. Would that imperil the nation?
Why is the military facing cuts?
It's the result of Congress's inability to reach any compromise on how to cut the deficit-ridden federal budget. In August 2011, congressional Republicans and the White House agreed to extend the nation's debt ceiling on the condition that a bipartisan "super-committee" would find ways to reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion over 10 years through spending cuts, revenue increases, or some combination of the two. Attempts to reach a "grand bargain" collapsed last November, triggering a "sequester" — a set of automatic cuts painful to both parties — that had been inserted in the debt-ceiling legislation in an attempt to force a compromise. The automatic cuts would chop the Pentagon's budget by about $500 billion over nine years, starting on Jan. 2, 2013, and cut another $500 billion from non-defense programs. Now that that date is looming, many Republicans want to cancel the sequester through legislation, warning that the mandated cuts "pose a serious threat to our national security."
Can the Pentagon absorb the cuts?
Not according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who has said they will turn the military into a "paper tiger." The sequester would shave $55 billion a year from the Pentagon's spending — roughly 10 percent of its budget. To meet that target, the House Armed Services Committee has said, the Army would have to fall from 569,000 active-duty soldiers today to 426,000, the lowest number since World War II. The Air Force would go from having 1,990 fighter aircraft to 1,512, and the Navy would see a reduction from 286 ships to 230. Spending on training would have to be slashed across all services, as would investment in repairs and new equipment. The U.S. would be left with "a force that suffers low morale, poor readiness, and is unable to keep up with potential adversaries," said Panetta. "In effect, it invites aggression." Critics, however, have accused the Pentagon of wildly exaggerating the cuts' impact.
After sequestration, the core defense budget — which doesn't include the cost of the war in Afghanistan — will stand at $472 billion in 2013. That's roughly the same level of spending as in 2007, the next-to-last year of the Bush administration. "Not even defense hawks were complaining about the budget being too low" in 2007, says Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan. At $472 billion, the U.S. will still be spending more on its military than the next 17 nations combined, and three times more than China. Democrats contend that with the war in Iraq over and U.S. involvement in Afghanistan winding down, the Pentagon can afford to let go of the 84,000 military personnel it added after 9/11. The Defense Department could also scrap or reduce orders for questionable weapons systems like the F-35 strike fighter — which will cost more than $200 million per plane, despite what the Government Accountability Office has described as "mixed" performance. But if the Pentagon suddenly slashed orders for new equipment, defense firms argue that they'd have no choice but to lay off workers.
How many jobs would be lost?
The Aerospace Industries Association says that the defense sequester would cost more than 1 million jobs by the end of 2013. "The impact on industry would be devastating," said Robert Stevens, CEO of defense giant Lockheed Martin. He told Congress that his company, which received 82 percent of its revenues from the government in 2011, might be forced to furlough 10,000 of its 120,000 employees if the cuts go ahead. But Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the independent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, disputes that figure, saying that the industry wouldn't feel the impact of sequestration for three to four years because of weapons programs already in the pipeline. "This gives industry more time to adjust employment levels through natural attrition or early retirements," he said.
Can the sequester be avoided?
No agreement is likely before the election. Even afterward, a lame-duck Congress and President Obama — who will remain in office until Jan. 20, regardless of the outcome on Election Day — might find it impossible to reach a compromise by Jan. 1. Republicans are still arguing that the military should be exempt from any spending cuts, and the budget plan presented by GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney would raise defense spending by up to $150 billion a year. That's a nonstarter for Democrats. The Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Buck McKeon, is now trying to persuade Democrats and Republicans to work together on legislation that will postpone sequestration in the hope of getting a broader budget fix later. That grand bargain will have to include serious defense cuts, said Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, if America has any hope of reducing its $16 trillion debt. "Will people squeal? Yes," he said. "Everybody is going to have to squeal if we are to get out of the problem we have in this country."
The Army's unwanted tanks
Last year, the U.S. Army made an unusual request to Congress: Stop sending us tanks. That plea was issued after legislators ignored the Army's objections and approved a defense appropriations bill that included $255 million for 42 new M1 Abrams tanks. With 2,300 M1s already deployed around the world, and 3,000 more sitting idle at a base in California's Sierra Nevada mountains, the military said it simply didn't need any more tanks. But Ohio politicians pushed for the extra M1s, so as to keep open an 800-worker tank plant in the state. "A lot of lawmakers stuff funding into defense bills that could benefit their district," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, whose district is home to the tank plant, insisted that he supported the program for reasons of national security. "I think it's in the best interests of the U.S. to defend our country," he said.
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