The pathetically predicable failure of the House-Senate debt "super committee" to do as ordered and produce $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years has sent top Pentagon officials scrambling to morph their futuristic and modestly budgeted war strategy into a Kmart blue light special that could jeopardize the nation's safety.
The super committee's failure means that Defense, already near the end of developing a new strategy that accounts for President Obama's promise to slash $450 billion over 10 years, could be hit with an automatic cut of another $500 billion over 10 years, likely resulting in a smaller nuclear force, fewer overseas bases, cancellation of new equipment like the Joint Strike Fighter, and the smallest ground force since before Pearl Harbor.
While other cabinet departments are banking on Congress changing the rules requiring automatic cuts beginning in January 2013, the Pentagon, now run by former Clinton budget chief Leon Panetta, can't bank on a hope and a prayer. "We have to plan our spending," says an official. "We have long-term contracts. We have personnel decisions. We have worldwide commitments. We can't do it overnight." [See a collection of political cartoons on the deficit super committee.]
Pentagon officials feel that the 12-member super committee didn't understand how important getting a deal done was to the Department of Defense. Not only did committee members ignore Panetta's November 14, five-page, program-by-program warning letter, they didn't even ask him to appear to discuss the nation's defense budget. "It's just odd," says one official.
But now that any deficit reduction plan looks dead, the Pentagon is changing its strategy to include 100 percent more in budget cuts, a path endorsed by Obama. The so-called Strategic Choices Group aims to have a plan out by January. "We're nearing the end," says an official.[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit]
So what could happen? An extremely frustrated Panetta suggests these reductions could occur: Space initiatives would be cut, saving $27 billion; European missle defense would be killed, saving $2 billion; the nation's long-range Intercontinental Ballistic Missile fleet would be nixed, saving $8 billion; the Navy fleet would be cut to 230 ships, the smallest level since World War I; 10 new ballistic missile subs would be nixed, saving about $7 billion; tactical fighter jets would be mothballed, leaving the smallest force in the history of the Air Force.
And oh, adds Panetta, "While large cuts are being imposed, the threats to national security would not be reduced."