Evan Moore and Patrick Christy are Senior Policy Analysts at the Foreign Policy Initiative.
President Obama's State of the Union speech Tuesday night comes at a time when the fiscal future of the U.S. Armed Forces hangs perilously in the balance. On March 1, 2013, sequestration cuts mandated by the August 2011 debt-limit deal will indiscriminately slash $500 billion—in addition to the $487 billion that is already being cut by the Obama administration—from defense spending. Allowing such radical reductions to proceed would be, in the words of outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, "a shameful act of irresponsibility," because they will require the military to dramatically cut the size of the force, and curtail training and maintenance to keep what remains operational.
Yet despite widespread understanding of what is at stake, the White House and members of Congress have not agreed on a possible solution, and lawmakers appear increasingly resigned that sequestration will occur. So far, President Obama has offered mainly platitudes, and not concrete solutions to this looming problem. In response, the Foreign Policy Initiative (where we work) organized a bipartisan open letter to Congress this week, urging House and Senate leadership to work together to avert sequestration's imminent disaster. Signed by 55 former U.S. government officials and national security leaders—including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and former Sens. Joe Lieberman, Jim Talent, and Norm Coleman—the open letter cautions:
Sequestration will result in unacceptable risk for U.S. national security. It will degrade our ability to defend our allies, deter aggression, and promote and protect American economic interests. It will erode the credibility of our treaty commitments abroad. It will be a self-inflicted wound to American strength and leadership in the world.
While the long-term ramifications of these defense cuts are well documented, the short-term impacts are less understood, but equally severe. Already, the Air Force, Army, and Navy have implemented immediate hiring freezes on civilian employees. The Pentagon not only has begun to lay off many of its 46,000 temporary employees and contractors, but also is expected submit a request to Congress to authorize furloughing its 800,000 civilian employees. Worse, multiple independent, nonpartisan reports have estimated that, under sequestration, as many as 1 million jobs will be ultimately be lost from the defense industry and related sectors nationwide.
What's more troubling, as Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week, "This freeze will disproportionately affect veterans, who make up 44 percent of the DoD civilian workforce. Hiring freezes will also be felt across the nation, since 86 percent of DoD's civilian jobs fall outside the Washington, D.C. metro area." Moreover, Carter noted: "This action will seriously harm our ability to do important work, which will, in turn, harm national security: civilians fix our ships and tanks and planes, staff our hospitals, handle contracting and financial management, and much more."
Moreover, as North Korea's recent nuclear bomb test dramatically demonstrates, the world remains a dangerous place. Whether it is defeating the Taliban and other extremist groups in Afghanistan, ensuring Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons capability, preventing territorial conflicts in the Western Pacific from blossoming into major wars, or protecting Syrian civilians from the merciless attacks of the Assad regime, American power will be required to avert catastrophe. Sequestration, however, will thoroughly undermine America's ability to respond to international crises, and spell disaster for those around the world who look to the United States for leadership.
During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing yesterday, General Mark A. Welsh, the Air Force Chief of Staff, starkly warned, "If sequestration occurs, it will significantly undermine the Air Force's readiness and responsiveness today… and—by hobbling modernization efforts—mortgage the Air Force's future health for years to come."
Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations, added that sequestration will "dramatically reduce: our overseas presence; our ability to respond to crises; our efforts to counter terrorism… and our material readiness across the Navy." Additionally, the Navy will have to cancel efforts to maintain as many as 25 ships and 327 aircraft.
Likewise, General Ray Odierno, the Army Chief of Staff, warned that the Army will have to curtail training not related to maintaining readiness for frontline missions such as Afghanistan and Korea. This, he said, will lead to "shortfalls in critical specialties." The Army will also have to be reduced by an additional 100,000 personnel.
As Secretary Panetta has warned, sequestration "would turn America from a first-rate power into a second-rate power." Some lawmakers, based on their public statements, apparently are resigning themselves to sequestration, if not outright embracing it. But for of the sake of national security and international stability, America's political leadership must reject this dangerous course, and work together to tackle the real drivers of our country's fiscal woes—profligate domestic spending, especially the spiraling costs of mandatory entitlement programs.