Washington's handling of the national debt crisis is sounding a lot like a script for a Hollywood action movie with all this talk of sequestration "triggers" and "doomsday."
The thrills will start in a few weeks when the congressional Super Committee will unveil its recommendations to cut at least $1.2 trillion from the federal budget or to do less and, according to the Budget Control Act, pull the trigger on $500 billion in defense cuts.
The trigger won't be pulled.But don't expect a happy ending, either.
When the dust settles, it's almost certain that the defense budget -- already slashed by hundreds of billions of dollars -- will suffer even more cuts. The new cuts will reach down to the bone --leaving us with a smaller army, navy and air force, making do with increasingly aged equipment. Readiness will decline precipitously.
Eventually, a few years down the line, Washington will wake up to the damage done. But it will take a crisis to open their eyes.
Washington is in Full-Blown Election Mode
The defense budget will probably not have to absorb another half trillion-dollar cut as part of the trigger scenario. But it will be raided to a still significant extent as policymakers ignore the elephant in the room (out-of-control entitlement spending) and push real spending reform off until next fall -- after the elections.
Already in election mode, politicians on both sides have simply dug in and hardened their positions. The most recent spending fight was resolved in the now-usual fashion -- passing a bill to buy more time. Yet this "solution" will last only until next autumn. The tax agreement of December 2010 and the debt ceiling deal legislation were designed to defer to the voters next November the fight over whether to raise taxes, cut domestic entitlements, or both.
In the meantime, the military's budget and priorities are in free fall.
Cutting defense has undeniable political appeal. It can generate real savings quickly. It gives the impression that Washington is tackling its spending addiction. And the consequences of cuts are seldom immediately apparent, so policymakers can get away with it in the short term.
Unfortunately, this is not new.
America's leaders have consistently under-funded defense procurement for short-term political and budgetary reasons, knowing that what they are spending will not buy the programs they say they need -- but knowing also that the effect will probably not be felt until their term is over.
It is very tempting to rob the future to pay for the present, especially when the future will be someone else's responsibility.
The Trigger is "Off the Table"
At a September "Defending Defense" event sponsored by The Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, and Foreign Policy Initiative, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told the audience the spending cuts trigger would never be pulled and result in a half trillion more of defense cuts. Before that could happen, he suggested, he would draft a bill to repeal and replace the trigger.
At the same event, Sen. Jon Kyl -- a Super Committee member -- announced that the committee would never recommend additional defense cuts, as long as he served on it.
This month, Sen. John McCain echoed Graham's efforts and said he, too, would not allow the trigger to be pulled.
There are many problems with all this, but two are immediate. One is the messiness that could ensue in between a possible failure of the Super Committee or a vote on its suggestions this year and October 2012 (the start of the next fiscal year). The second is the effect on markets and the voting public from abandoning the trigger, which would complete the collapse of the debt ceiling agreement and further erode Congress' credibility.
President Obama's fiscal 2013 budget arrives on Capitol Hill on or about February 6, 2012. The trigger is technically not pulled until the start of fiscal year 2013, but Congress still has to pass a spending bill for DoD before that date (in theory, anyway). Which means the 2013 defense budget will probably look like the 2012 defense budget and the 2011 defense budget. Bottom line: There is a hard freeze on defense spending unlikely to end before FY 2014.
This Doesn't Mean Defense Cuts Are Over
In their first joint appearance before Congress this month, the new Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff both outlined the devastating impact of piling on another half trillion dollars of defense budget cuts on top of those already under way.
Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee -- led by Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon -- quickly followed with their message to the Super Committee: no more defense cuts, period.
Meanwhile, members of the Super Committee meet in secret behind closed doors. They are absolutely examining more defense cuts -- into the hundreds of billions.
Congress and the Administration may agree that an additional $500 billion cut is completely unacceptable. But at the height of the debt ceiling debate, policymakers coalesced quite comfortably around a total of roughly $850 billion in defense cuts over the next decade. It's certainly possible that, come January, they could "compromise" on an additional $250 billion to $350 billion reduction in military spending.
2012: Third Year in a Row of Rolling Defense "Cuts" -- With More to Come
Meanwhile, Congress is barreling down the tracks with versions of the 2012 defense spending bills that cut the President's already parsimonious request. Major plans and programs of the armed forces are at risk.
The Senate's version of the 2012 defense appropriations bill meets the discretionary caps of the debt ceiling legislation. But it does so by appropriating only $513 billion for the base defense budget. This is nearly $26 billion less than President Obama's requested level.
The Senate approach is largely the same it took last year and the year before: kill or cut weapons systems. The draft bill proposes freezing production of the Joint Strike Fighter at 2011 rates, cancels the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, cuts the Army's Ground Combat Vehicle buy, and reduces the Joint Tactical Radio Systems program.
Because Defense Has No Clear Baseline, Some Deny There Have Been Any Cuts
All year long, politicians have taken to the airwaves to insist that the defense budget must be "on the table" in efforts to reduce federal spending and America's debt.
This statement implies that the military budget has been off the table until now, somehow exempt from cuts. The AP went so far as to say "There have been no "massive defense cuts" under Obama."
Let's review recent history and fact check the AP's fact checkers.
Serious efforts to reduce spending started in April 2009 when then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates canceled (or delayed) the purchase of more than 50 major weapons systems and equipment programs.
Two years ago, the Obama administration, the Secretary of Defense, and Congress began to reshape the military by changing the direction of defense investments and canceling programs with a total lifetime value of more than $300 billion. Canceled equipment programs include: a combat search-and-rescue helicopter; the F-22 fifth generation fighter; the Army's Future Combat System; the multiple-kill vehicle for missile defense; a long-range bomber for the Air Force; the VH-71 presidential helicopter; the Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) program, and the second Airborne Laser aircraft. In addition, the administration pushed construction of an aircraft carrier out four years to five, reduced the number of Ground-based Midcourse Defense interceptors from 44 to 30, and abandoned the Navy's next-generation cruiser.
The recently passed 2011 defense budget was not spared the axe, either. Some of the reductions included: ending production of the country's only wide-bodied cargo aircraft, the C-17; terminating the EPX intelligence aircraft; permanently canceling the Navy's cruiser; ending another satellite program, and killing the Marine's Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. The Army's surface-to-air missile program and its Non-Line-of-Sight cannon are also gone.
The defense reduction efforts continued in April 2010 when Gates announced an efficiency initiative to save roughly $101 billion over five years. That reduced the number of contractors and civilian personnel, consolidated duplicative infrastructure and facilities, and cut funding for support contractors and advisory and assistance contractors in intelligence.
Next up was the White House budget office telling DoD to cut another $78 billion as part of it's 2012 through 2016 defense budget, which arrived on Capitol Hill in February, supposedly through "management and acquisition reforms."
This was followed by President Obama's call to reduce defense spending by $400 billion dollars over 13 years. He chose this target for defense cuts precisely because he wanted to match the cuts that had already been made to date. Meanwhile, Congressmen and organizations throughout the beltway developed their own plans on how to cut defense spending.
Washington's Dirty Secret: Defense Cuts Already Approaching $1 Trillion
Today, the military is absorbing cuts set forth by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and confronting the specter of many more over the next ten years.
If we use President Obama's pending 2012 budget request as a baseline, the defense budget cuts going forward are in the neighborhood of $460 billion, not $350 billion as claimed by the White House.
If we were to use President Obama's second defense budget request in FY 2011 as a baseline, the total defense cuts relative to what DoD said it needed then and planned to spend now, the military has already absorbed roughly $754 billion in spending reductions.
And if we went all the way back to President Obama's first defense budget request in FY 2010, well, you get the point.
Super Committee Next Steps
It is widely expected the Super Committee will offer up additional defense cuts in the range of $250 to $350 billion over 10 years. Its members are likely to look to war spending and DoD benefits.
In the meantime, defense officials are working on alternate alternate budgets for 2013 and even 2014. The White House allegedly rejected the recent Defense Planning Guidance, largely informed by the latest developments of AirSea Battle investments, as unaffordable. So regardless of congressional chaos, defense cuts will continue until after the election next year.
Much damage can be inflicted upon the U.S. military in this short span, however. The question remains whether the damage will be permanent or reversible.
Mackenzie Eaglen is a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at The Heritage Foundation.