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Sequestration: Cutting the Fat and the Muscle

Though much has been said over the last year about the benefits and dangers of sequestration, the reality of the impending automatic budget cuts is beginning to set in for many politicians who previously supported the action. At the Brookings Institution’s “Sequestration and the Nation’s Defense: Prospects and Perils” experts largely agreed with many members of Congress that the sweeping cuts threaten national security. This consensus is based in two arguments: the nation’s debt acting as a security threat in its own right, or that sharp reductions in the budget translate directly to reduced U.S. military capability.

Martin Indyk and Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings wrote that “four straight years of trillion-dollar deficits…leave the country weaker…Obama’s foreign policy successes will matter little if the economy ultimately can’t support American power.” The Bipartisan Policy Center agrees, saying “growing deficits and debt will erode our prosperity and leadership in the world.” Peter Singer calls U.S. debt “more like that of Greece than a superpower.” O’Hanlon reiterated to  the Senate Budget Committee that “federal debt and with it the possible erosion of our national economic foundations have become national security threats themselves.”

While this debt issue has led to near universal approval of budget cuts, the problem with the sequester is that it cuts directly into the military’s perceived “fat” just as much as its recognized “muscle.”

President Obama’s most recent budget will reduce the size of the Army by 72,000 troops and the Marine Corps by 20,000. If the sequester takes effect the Army, Army Reserve, and Army National Guard will lose an additional 100,000 soldiers according to Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff. The Marine Corps will lose an additional 18,000 Marines, which, according to the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, would render the Marines incapable of performing a single contingency operation. Reducing the size of the U.S. active duty military so dramatically is detrimental as it forces the country to use its National Guard for combat missions the service was never intended for, i.e. “the backdoor draft.”

As it exists now, defense projects will be cut, but not in a way that rationally saves money. Because the sequester is 15-percent, across-the-board cuts, it looks at budget numbers rather than rational areas for cuts. Furthermore, Steve Bell noted that lawsuits and damages claims can result in “more than $500 billion” in cuts. The reason being, if a contract is only partially completed and then canceled, the government has a legal obligation to compensate the contractors. Therefore, canceling large contracts does not necessarily translate into large savings. Additionally, the sequester would affect old and new defense projects equally. A new research program and a nearly-completed weapon system would both be cut 15 percent. The problem being that a 15-percent cut would likely lead to 100-percent failure of smaller programs.

Despite the national debt, the U.S. cannot afford to diminish its military readiness, making way for the rise of current and potential adversaries.  The debt must be cut and a reduced defense budget most certainly will be a part of the solution along with substantial entitlement reform and possible tax increases. Unfortunately, the sequester achieves neither financial nor military security.

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