Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U

April 19, 2013

The Peril of Sequestration

Originally published in National Review Online
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey brief the press about Obama’s budget request, April 10, 2013 (DOD/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

Sequestration has done material harm to America’s national security at a dangerous moment. The predictable crisis resulting from Iran’s pursuit of nuclear-weapons capability is evolving in a way that requires a serious and credible American military threat in support of negotiations and other non-military efforts to resolve it. An unpredictable crisis has emerged on the Korean Peninsula, where a state that already has nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them is testing American resolve. The cancellation of scheduled deployments of eight U.S. Navy ships, including an aircraft carrier destined for the Persian Gulf, and the grounding of 17 U.S. Air Force combat squadrons — all of this the result of sequestration — is thus a devastating blow to American global credibility just when our enemies and friends are watching most closely.


Sequestration has had an impact on the combat elements of all of the armed services. By far the most significant was the cancellation in February of the deployment of the carrier strike group built around the U.S.S. Harry S. Truman. That cancellation has created a window in 2013 during which the United States will have no aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, a departure from the posture adopted in 2010 as tensions with Iran increased. Iran’s military immediately took notice; an editorial in Mashregh, a paper controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, explained: “At a minimum, one can conclude from this decision that the United States does not imagine any military operations in the Persian Gulf in the short term, because in this situation the reduction of military forces would be foolish.”

In addition to canceling the Truman deployment, the Navy has grounded four carrier air wings and restricted the flying time of two more. It canceled the scheduled deployments of a guided-missile destroyer, two guided-missile frigates, an attack submarine, a hospital ship, and a salvage tug, as well as curtailing the tours of another guided-missile destroyer and another guided-missile frigate after only two months at sea.

The Air Force has announced the grounding of an F-22 squadron and an F-15E squadron, and the closing of one A-10C squadron. In addition, three more F-15E squadrons, four F-16 C/D wings and three squadrons, two more A-10C squadrons, two B-1B squadrons, and one B-52 squadron have stood down. A number of other combat units have been restricted to minimal flying hours. These decisions have an immediate impact on American military capability, since the grounded units are not available for missions. But they also have a longer-term impact, since it can take as long as six months to get a unit back to combat-ready status after it has stopped flying.

It is harder to measure the impact of sequestration on the ground forces because their training schedules are not normally publicly available, but both the Army and the Marines have announced the curtailment of training for units that are not scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan. Even units that are deploying have seen some of their preparations reduced — conferences and seminars that are a normal part of pre-deployment training have been canceled for some units, for example.

Public discussion of these operational consequences of sequestration has naturally focused on the partisan political fight over the federal budget and fiscal policy, creating an odd partisan role reversal. Democrats and liberal media have been more inclined to defend the military rhetorically, holding up the damage being done to the armed forces as evidence that sequestration must be reversed, while some Republicans and conservative media have accused the uniformed military of grandstanding to support the president’s domestic agenda. The entire discussion has been overshadowed, of course, by the continent-spanning blame game about who exactly is responsible for the sequestration in the first place.

Without assigning blame or debating the wisdom of sequestration, let us consider the question of military “grandstanding.” It is important for several reasons. The accusation that the uniformed military has deliberately chosen to reduce the armed forces’ ability to defend the nation in a time of war in order to promote the president’s domestic political agenda is quite a serious one. It should not be made lightly or without careful examination of the evidence. Since the military is precluded by law and custom from involving itself directly in domestic politics, such an accusation is tantamount to an assertion that it has become so politicized and partisan that it is willing to subordinate its own constitutional obligations to the pursuit of domestic political advantage for one party or another. If the Joint Chiefs of Staff did, in fact, choose to undermine their own combat forces to help President Obama obtain a political benefit, then they have violated the oaths they swore, which are carefully crafted to create an obligation to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” rather than to be loyal to the commander-in-chief. Anyone who seriously believes that the Chiefs have acted in this manner should be demanding an investigation and prepared to demand their dismissal. 

Any such investigation would show, however, that the military’s recommendations to the secretary of defense (who, with the president, alone has the power to make decisions such as canceling deployments, since the Chiefs are not in the chain of command) were not grandstanding. The Department of Defense is a half-trillion-dollar business. Congress has evolved a tortuous process for micro-managing the defense budget to the greatest possible extent. Some programs are favored because they create jobs in important congressional districts, others because they support policy agendas on matters not properly the concern of the Defense Department at all. For these and other reasons, Congress does not simply give the secretary of defense half a trillion dollars every year to disburse as he pleases. On the contrary, defense appropriations specify exactly how much money is to be spent on a myriad of very particular areas, projects, programs, and bases and deny the executive branch the ability to move money freely among these accounts.

Take the case of the DOD’s biofuels initiative. The Defense Department will reportedly spend $60 million this year on efforts to convert to and use biofuels rather than fossil fuels. That money could have been used instead to allow the Truman to deploy. But DOD does not have the legal authority to divert funds from the biofuels account to the operations and maintenance (O&M) account that pays for deployments. Senator Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) offered an amendment last month that would have transferred the $60 million. It was defeated in the Senate 59–40. That $60 million was therefore not, by law, available to DOD for use in this emergency. Similar constraints apply to defense-budget line items supporting breast-cancer research and various other non-defense-related expenditures. Fixing this problem generally would require Congress to give the executive branch the legal right to shift money among defense-budget line items, which is a very unlikely prospect indeed.

The continuing resolution to fund the government passed by Congress at the end of March gave the Defense Department some flexibility in its spending to allow it to better cope with the situation. But for Congress, “flexibility” is a limited notion. The section of the CR related to the Defense Department covers 63 close-set pages. It specifies, among many other things, exactly how much DOD can spend on the O&M accounts for each service and exactly how much can be transferred into those accounts from other programs. Critics who say that the Air Force has fought to preserve the F-35 program rather than to keep its current aircraft flying must recognize that Congress specified that it should do so by allocating precisely $11,774,019,000 to “aircraft procurement.” That is a sum, it should be noted, that is distinct from the $4,962,376,000 allotted to “missile procurement” or the $594,694,000 set aside for “ammunition procurement.”

Even in the continuing resolution, Congress sweated the small stuff. The resolution requires that DOD spend at least $8 million on HIV-prevention education in Africa, for example. Another provision stipulates that all “carbon, alloy, or armor steel plate” used in any government-owned facility be “melted and rolled in the United States or Canada” — although it allows the secretary of defense to waive this requirement if there is not enough rolled steel available from these countries for DOD’s needs. A similar stricture requires all “ball and roller bearings” to be purchased domestically. Still another provision authorizes the modernization of heating systems at U.S. facilities in Kaiserslautern, Germany, as long as the Germans agree to the use of “United States anthracite” to fuel them.

We consider these details not to identify or criticize “pork” or earmarks, but rather to note the attention that Congress lavished on certain aspects of the defense portion of the continuing resolution. Had Congress sought to ensure that sequestration would not harm national security — or to prevent the military from grandstanding on behalf of the White House — one simple provision would have done it: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the secretary of defense shall have the authority to transfer monies from any other defense account into the operations and maintenance account of any of the several services if it is his judgment that such transfer is essential to preserve the current combat capability of the active and reserve elements of the armed forces of the United States and following his formal notification to Congress of his intent to do so and the reasons for the transfer.” There is no such provision in the continuing resolution — nothing like it, in fact. On the contrary, its language reflects a business-as-usual approach to the defense budget that has left the secretary of defense and the uniformed leadership severely constrained in their ability to mitigate the impact of sequestration on the military’s readiness to fight.

None of which is to say that either the civilian or the military leadership of the Defense Department has acted perfectly. As my colleague Mackenzie Eaglen has written, DOD’s consistent refusal (reportedly driven at least in part by White House guidance) to plan for sequestration and accordingly adjust its spending during the first part of this fiscal year has unquestionably magnified the damage sequestration has caused. It is possible — indeed, likely — that creative ways to get the Truman to the Persian Gulf could have been found.

And our discussion should not lose sight of the fact that the president remains the commander-in-chief and is ultimately personally responsible for all decisions regarding the deployment of American military personnel, aircraft, and vessels. There is no public evidence to suggest that he was sufficiently concerned about the cancellation of the Truman’s deployment to demand any action, from the Defense Department or Congress, to avert it. It is hard to imagine that if the White House had asked Congress for a short bill transferring the money required to support the Truman’s deployment from one bucket to another within the DOD budget, Congress would have refused to pass it. It is equally hard to imagine that if Congress, on hearing of the impending cancellation, had itself initiated and passed such a bill, the president would have vetoed it. All parties are to blame for this national-security debacle, and no one has benefited from it except, possibly, our enemies.

Our discussion has gone deep into the defense-budget weeds because that is where decisions are made about how defense money is actually spent. But we should also give brief consideration to the context within which $500 billion is to be cut from the Defense Department over the next nine years because of the sequester. Alone among major government agencies, DOD did not benefit from any of the stimulus spending at the start of the Obama presidency — despite the fact that the overwhelming proportion of money spent on defense flows directly back into the American economy, via projects many of which were “shovel ready” in January 2009. On the contrary, defense spending has been cut by $965 billion since 2010 (over a ten-year window) without counting sequestration. That is a sum nearly twice the yearly DOD budget. Sequestration would bring that total to nearly three full years’ worth of defense spending. No other major government agency or program will suffer anything approaching that level of immediate and longer-term budget cuts under any of the plans now under consideration. Even with all of these defense cuts, moreover, budgeteers on both sides of the aisle are scrambling to find much greater sums of money through either tax increases or major cuts to entitlement programs in order to bring the federal deficit and national debt under control. And so they must, for, as my colleague Nick Eberstadt has pointed out, even if we eliminated the defense budget entirely, growth in entitlement programs would make up the difference within four years.

One need not accuse any of the characters in this tragedy of malevolence in order to explain their actions. Sequestration is being allowed to harm American national security severely because the attention of policymakers and elites is elsewhere. The United States is putting itself, its allies, and the world order that serves America so well at great risk in a fit of absentmindedness. It is past time to start paying attention again to the consequences of this policy on our security.