The following is a FAQ for everyone seeking information on the pending sequestration of defense spending.
First, what is the sequester?
It is an automatic mechanism which, unless current law is changed, will cut $600 bn per decade ($60 bn per year) out of the core defense budget (which is $531 bn in the current FY) on top of the first tier of defense budget cuts ordered by last August’s debt ceiling deal ($487 bn over a decade). In total, unless law is changed, it would cut over $1 trillion out of defense over a decade. And that’s on top of the shrinking, and eventual zeroing out, of GWOT budgets resulting from withdrawal from Afghanistan.
How did the sequester come about?
It was included in the debt ceiling deal concluded last August. Republicans wanted spending cuts in exchange for hiking the debt ceiling, so the law ordered, as a first step, $487 bn in defense cuts and modest cuts in domestic discretionary programs, and imposed an overall cap on discretionary spending.
Furthermore, it created a committee of 12 Congressmen and Senators tasked with finding $1.2 trillion in savings over the next decade. The sequester, which threatens to cut that much automatically (with half of it coming from defense), was added as an incentive for committee members to compromise. As OMB Director Jacob Lew says, “The sequester was never meant to be policy.”
But the committee failed to come up with any plan, and so did the Congress at large, triggering the sequester. Now, barring a change in law, the military – an innocent third party – will be punished for Congress’s failure to cut the deficit.
How grave would the cuts be?
Very grave. The $600 bn defense cuts would come on top of the First Tier of defense cuts ($487 bn), which are cutting not only waste but also several crucial military capabilities. Despite the frequently-made claim that “there’s still a lot of waste in the defense budget”, there isn’t enough of it to pay for $1 trillion in defense budget cuts, even over a decade. Not even close.
The best proof is that no one among those making this claim has been able to demonstrate $1 trillion (or anything close to it) in genuine waste in the defense budget. Most of the “wasteful” programs that defense cuts’ proponents have singled out for termination are actually crucial military capabilities and programs such as the Virginia class and the V-22 Osprey.
If anyone claims that there is $100 bn in waste in every annual defense budget, the burden of proof is on that person, as the claimant.
There is some, perhaps even a lot, of waste in the defense budget, but not $1 trillion, and sequestration is the worst way to eliminate it, because it would cut everything equally, the waste along with the essentials. That’s an insane policy. The RIGHT way to eliminate waste is to review the defense budget line by line, eliminate all wasteful and fraudulent expenditures, and fully fund all essential defense programs. There is no alternative to this intellectual hard work.
Under sequestration, the DOD would have to, inter alia:
- Cancel the F-35 program completely without replacement, and thus betray foreign program partners and give up air superiority
- Eliminate the ICBM leg of the nuclear triad completely while cutting the bomber fleet by 2/3 and cancelling the bomber replacement program
- Cancel the SSBN replacement program and cut the existing SSBN fleet
- Cancel all but the most basic upgrades for F-15s and F-16s while cutting the fighter fleet by 35%
- Cut the USN’s ship fleet below 230 vessels, the smallest size since 1915, and vastly inadequate (independent studies say the Navy needs 346 ships)
- Cut the carrier and attack submarine fleets and the Virginia class construction rate
- Forego the deployment of any missile defense system abroad
- Cut the Army to its smallest size since 1940
- Cancel virtually all Army modernization programs
- Cut the Marines down to just 145,000 personnel
- Cut personnel benefits programs to such depth that it would break faith with them (e.g. massive cuts in DOD health programs and retirement benefits), thus discouraging people from joining the military or reenlisting
- Lay off, in total, 200,000 military personnel
As testified by Obama’s own SECDEF, as well as all Joint Chiefs, deputy service chiefs, lower-ranking generals, and other DOD officials, and as confirmed by many independent analysts and retired officers, sequestration would completely gut the military. For JCS Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, sequestration would produce “the definition of a hollow force”. For USMC LTG Richard Mills, “sequestration would break faith with those defending America.”
General Dempsey warns that if sequestration goes through and military personnel are exempted from it, he can cut only equipment, operations, and maintenance, and cut them big – and that, he says, would produce “the definition of a hollow force.”
The HASC has come to similar conclusions and also warns that most of the damage that would be done to defense would be irreversible. For example, if you cancel a shipbuilding program that a shipyard relies on, the shipyard will have to close and be liquidated and will not be there to reopen when you’re finally ready to start buying ships again.
But won’t repealing sequestration let the DOD off the hook?
No, because it would retain First Tier BCA-mandated cuts ($487 bn per decade) and the cap on defense spending, as well as all the defense cuts already implemented, intact.
But why should we cut social programs (such as entitlements, welfare, foodstamps) and other domestic discretionary programs instead? Why exempt defense from sequestration and shift the cuts there?
Firstly, defense has already contributed $920 bn in savings since 2009 (and will contribute more as US troops withdraw from Afghanistan), while no other government program or agency has contributed any significant savings and most haven’t seen any budget cuts at all. Secondly, defense is the #1 Constitutional duty of the federal government, while most domestic programs, including those mentioned above, are unconstitutional and are the exclusive province of the states. Welfare, foodstamps, agriculture, transportation, and health are among the myriad of issues reserved to the states and the people. Thirdly, as America’s national experience shows, states and localities, as well as private citizens, are best-informed and best-equipped to deal with these issues, while the federal government only makes matters worse. For example, since the federal Education Department was established, the quality of America’s schools has been badly degraded, precisely because of federal meddling.
Last but not least, the costs of these domestic discretionary programs – especially social programs – are excessive and far higher than the cost of defense. In FY2010 alone, federal welfare spending was $888 bn and has grown since then. More Americans are on welfare rolls and on food stamps (46 million) than ever before in US history. The US spends more on education than any other country, in absolute numbers and per capita, yet the HS dropout rate is 30%.
But should we subsidize the defense industry and foreign countries’ defense?
The defense budget is not about subsidizing the industry and it is not a jobs program (although some politicians want it to be one). Its only purpose is to provide the resources needed to protect the country. But decisions on defense programs shouldn’t be made without consideration for the defense industry’s health, since without it, the US cannot produce the equipment and supplies American troops need. It shouldn’t be the primary consideration, but it shouldn’t be completely ignored, either.
As for foreign countries, even if the US were to revoke its defense commitments to all allies and protect only itself, it would still need a large military and defense budget. There is a large territory, long borders, 308 million citizens, and crucial sealanes (on which the US economy depends) to protect. That cannot be done on the cheap.
But won’t we still be militarily stronger than China and Russia?
No; in fact, the US will be decisively weaker. The USN already has fewer ships than the PLAN, but the sequester would cut it below the Russian Navy’s size. Also, all three legs of the nuclear triad would be eliminated (one outright and the others through nonreplacement), and existing SSBN, fighter, and bomber fleets would be deeply cut, as would be missile defense programs (despite SM-3’s recent success), the size of the Army and Marine Corps, and other capabilities.
But don’t we need to sequestrate defense spending to reduce the budget deficit?
No. Sequestration would be devastating for defense (a $60 bn annual cut!), but would not even dent the budget deficit, which is $1.3 trillion this FY. (See the graph below.) Moreover, it’s possible to balance the budget without sequestrating defense – as the budget plans of the RSC, Chairman Paul Ryan, the Heritage Foundation (introduced by Sen. Mike Lee), and Sen. Pat Toomey (all of which would spare defense from sequestration) prove.
So what can I do to stop sequestration from happening?
Contact your Congressman and Senators and tell them that you want Washington to fulfill its duty to protect the country and to stop sequestration. Tell them that if they fail, you will never vote for them again and will tell all your friends to vote likewise. If enough citizens speak up, they will listen.