Military Not Created Equal Under Sequestration

Experts, officials explain double standard in sequestration cuts.


Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, says his region is more affected by the sequester as East Asia is increasingly the focus of the White House.

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Not all military units are in the same boat under sequestration, as the across-the-board cuts target some missions more than others.

East Asia is the new focus of the White House, which means U.S. Pacific Command is a favored breadwinner among the regional commands. It enjoys money to address North Korea's nuclear missile program and some form of threat from China. Only one ship has been cut from deployment to that region, and the primary missions for ground troops are fully funded, a top officer says.

The same is not true for troops in America's backyard. The regional command for Central and South America has received only a fraction of its requested resources, despite what experts and military officials say is a growing and underreported threat from countries such as Venezuela.

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Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, recently said Iran has been growing its influence in his area of responsibility, which includes the Caribbean and all countries south of the Mexican border.

"Iran's engagement seems to be predicated on an attempt to evade international sanctions and cultivate anti-U.S. sentiment," Kelly said in remarks at D.C.-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies on May 16.

"[Iran] has had the greatest success in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador," he said, adding they are involved in drug trafficking and "vast amounts of money laundering."

Kelly has previously said SouthCom would need 13 or 14 ships to stem the flow of drug trafficking into the U.S. in keeping with goals President Barack Obama has set. Budget cuts only allowed five or six ships to be deployed. Sequestration cut that number down to one.

[READ: Defense Employees Lose 20 Percent of Pay to Sequestration]

Meanwhile, only one ship has been cut from deployment to the Pacific. The top U.S. Army officer for that region of the world told reporters May 13 that equipment maintenance and training was taking a hit under sequestration, but all U.S. military operations and quick-response forces on the Korean peninsula, as well as those training with Chinese counterparts, have all the funding they need.

"For a long time in Washington the approach to the region has been 'No nukes, no problem,'" says Carl Meacham, director of the Americas Program at CSIS.

Many in positions of power see Latin America as they did in the 1980s and 1990s as neither important nor a focal issue, he says. Part of the problem is the complexity of issues there. It is easy to explain to the average voter the threat of nuclear weapons in North Korea or cyber hacking from China. But Latin America is more nuanced and involves many outside players, including Iran, which some experts believe exploits existing drug trafficking routes for its own nefarious intentions.

"It's a tapestry that's full of different types of patterns and different types of things going on," says Meacham. That can easily be explained away by the great successes by Colombian counter-drug forces in chipping away at the influence of organizations such as the FARC, a notoriously violent and dangerous criminal syndicate.

[READ: Some Army Money Protected From Sequestration]

A spokesman for SouthCom confirms the regional command has only received one ship deployment (though that has the potential to change) and will furlough 851 civilian employees for 11 days each starting in July. It also had to cut Operation Continuing Promise, in which a U.S. hospital ship traveled the region to do port visits and provide medical and dental care.

"The U.S. as a whole has to prioritize where it spends its resources – it's a simple matter of budgeting," says spokesman Army Col. Gregory Julian. "Our engagement throughout the region does continue, but at a smaller scale."

This includes countering transnational crime and the trafficking of people, illicit drugs and money. SouthCom continues to build up partner nations, such as Colombia, to take on more of this responsibility themselves.