The Impact of the Sequester on our National Defense

If Congress and the White House cannot agree on a deficit-cutting strategy by March 1, an across-the-board $85 billion cut in federal spending will kick in. To date, the Obama administration and Congress are far apart on a deal, and most departments of the federal government are preparing for major spending cuts. Unlike in the past, where cuts were largely accounting gimmicks, this time the cuts would be real and deep and would have a profound impact on federal programs and the U.S. economy.

The so called “sequestration” would require an immediate cut of $43 billion in total 2013 defense spending and would lead to a loss of approximately $500 billion in defense spending over the next decade. This would come on top of a reduction of` $487 billion in projected Pentagon spending during the coming decade that was announced by the Obama administration last year and is unrelated to sequestration. The net result would be a cut in defense spending during the next ten years of just over $1 trillion.

Real spending cuts of this magnitude will have an unprecedented impact on virtually every aspect of the American military posture. Furloughing of up to 108,000 civilian employees of the Defense Department is expected to be immediate, but that will be just the tip of the iceberg.

Eventually, cuts will be made in uniformed manpower, equipment, training, deployment areas and defense contracts. The U.S. will have to reduce the 1.5 million uniformed personnel and the one million reservists, further cut the 700,000 civilians employed by the Pentagon around the world, cut several air craft carrier strike groups from the current 11 groups and cancel several high priced weapons programs. If these cuts actually take place, they will force the first huge shift in our philosophy of defense since 1945 and will ultimately affect the American ability to wage war in any part of the globe. U.S. defense planners shortly would have to prioritize where military forces would—and could—be deployed and where we no longer could deploy them. It will become increasingly difficult to conduct the kind of operations we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the first time since the end of World War II, broad stretches of the globe—including the Persian Gulf, East Asia and the Mediterranean—would be devoid of American military power.

In the current globalizing world, a philosophical change in American defense strategy is long overdue, but taking an ax to the defense budget is not the way to do it. It has become glib—even passé—to say the world has changed, but it is true. We no longer have enough money to sustain our former approach to military policy; there are now many more centers of power, and the world is far more integrated. But, sadly, while much of official Washington pays lip service to the “changing world,” many policy makers and military leaders still argue that we must maintain the kind of military machine we have had since the Cold War. In recent testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave a “dire” warning that any cuts in defense spending would put the country at serious risk. He did not accept the reality that we simply cannot—and should not—attempt to sustain our current military posture.

But how do we fashion a rational, responsible defense strategy in these early years of the 21st century? We need to answer three fundamental questions. First, what is the nature of the world that is emerging? Second, what are our interests in that world? And, third, what policies and structures do we need to protect and advance those interests? It is only after answering these three questions will we be able to know what a rational defense budget is. We need to realize that the world is no longer our exclusive “oyster”—either we accept and lead change, or it will be forced upon us.

—Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.