Penny-Wise Pound-Foolish Defense Cuts

The sequester is making a mess of our military readiness.

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News stories on the impact of sequester-related defense cuts on the military have been focusing on the softer and more personal side: the unpaid civilian furloughs, the potential changes to military commissary benefits, the canceling of local air shows and even the lack of Navy fleet weeks.

Hard to find are headlines that explain why sequestration is just poor policy for national security. There is, however, at least one exception: "The High Cost of Saving Money."

In the story, Air Force magazine's John Tirpak notes that the true price of cost cutting is spending twice as much (or more) to rebuild later. In the Air Force's case, the chief of staff has said that it "costs somewhere around two-and-a-half times as much money to retrain a squadron as it does to keep it trained."

[See a collection of political cartoons on sequestration and the fiscal cliff.]

Worse, the impact of sequestration is not just the net effect of spending more to save less. Lost time is an unrecoverable asset. Pilot flying hours, ship steaming days and lost live-fire combat training time now will not be recovered easily or in equal time later. Trying to catch up in combat proficiency takes many more hours than simply keeping pilots, captains and soldiers at a steady status.

America's fifth-generation fighter fleet of F-22s offers an illustrative example. This fleet of aircraft was grounded in 2011 for four months. General estimates of recovery time to regain the pilot, crew and maintainers' proficiency status was six months. The loss of time and money to save a bit in the near term is the type of trade-off often missing in the larger discussion about sequestration's costs and benefits.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

There are many additional newsworthy stories about the real-world consequences of Washington's automatic budget cuts on the military. The hit to military readiness, training and maintenance has proven remarkably deep and swift: among them ships idling in port and bombers parked at the end of runways, all unusable due to a lack of funds. This sends an unfortunate but powerful message not only to those in uniform who are serving their country, but also to friends, allies and foes around the world.

Sequestration as a way of producing near-term budget savings at the longer-term expense of the health and affordability of military strength seems to be the epitome of a classic idiom of acting "penny wise and pound foolish."

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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