Battleland

Sequestration and What It Would Do to U.S. Military Power

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Navy photo / Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Jim Hampshire

Dawn greets the USS Theodore Roosevelt as it steams in support of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Part One of Five

In recent months, concerns over sequestration and its impact on the U.S. military have reached a fever pitch in Washington.

Sequestration “would destroy the military” and cause an “inability to defend the nation” argued Senator John McCain, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services committee. “Cuts of this magnitude would be catastrophic to the military,” testified General Raymond Odierno, the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, to Congress. “From a pure national security perspective, the gap between the U.S. military and our closest rivals will collapse with sequestration,” wrote the Washington Times. And it would create a U.S. military akin to a “paper tiger…unable to keep up with potential adversaries.” said Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. “In effect, it invites aggression.”

There is no doubt that sequestration would be a terrible mistake. If Congress is unable to reach a compromise on how to solve America’s debt dilemma, almost half a trillion dollars in mandatory cuts to the defense budget over the next decade would initiate in January (meaning roughly $55 billion in the first year). It is un-strategic to hack away at the defense budget in a generalized manner, cutting the good and the bad by the same percentage, like a butcher with a piece of meat.

(MORE: A Smarter Way to Trim the Pentagon Budget)

Unfortunately, in the effort to fight this scenario with hyperbole, we may be doing a different kind of disservice to U.S. security.

While the screams of outrage over sequestration are directed at a domestic American audience, they resonate around the world. Words do matter, especially those said in the capital of the free world about how it sees its own ability to maintain that role.

We do know that America’s allies are certainly listening to these statements. For example, at an August 2012 engagement with high level South Korean defense leaders and experts, organized by Brookings and KIDA, the Korean Institute for Defense Analysis, a senior Korean leader said “We hear these statements and have deep, deep concern about what it means for us.” In turn, we don’t know how such predictions of doom and gloom by American leaders are received in capitals like Pyongyang. But one can reasonably conclude that if you don’t want to “invite aggression” then the best tactic is not to go about screaming to the world that you expect to be weak and “toothless.”

So what we have today is the combination of high stakes, hysteria and the kind of complex issue that too often only policy wonks love to dive into. Indeed, the very word “sequestration” itself seems almost designed to make it hard to understand (it actually comes from an old Latin term meaning to seize the property of someone for the benefit of paying off their debtors or the state).

This series of articles this week is an attempt to deep dive into these fears and demystify what sequestration might really mean for U.S. military spending and power.

Instead of the typical Washington, D.C., discussion of sequestration, which has so far largely been focused on questions of jobs and elections, it tries to take the long view. First, we will look at the background of how we got here and the actual drivers behind the looming budget cuts. Then, we’ll place it all into context, looking at what sequestration might mean to the U.S. military spending compared to the world in general. Then, we’ll explore a bit deeper its potential impact on East Asian military spending levels, checking out what it means for one of the most important regions in the world and the new area of American military “pivot.” And finally, we’ll examine just how sequestration might play out in an area where there is perhaps the deepest concern about the potential impact of potential sequestration, the flashpoint of the Korean peninsula.

(MORE: Calls for Phantom Defense Cuts Must Stop)

Segye Choigang is a common term in Korean used to describe the U.S. military.  It means “second to none” or “best in the world.” What readers, both in the US but also places like Korea, want to know is whether that remain the case, if sequestration really were to occur?

Trillion as in T: How we Got Here and What It Means for the Budget

No discussion of sequestration can begin without first looking at the financial situation that got America into this predicament. In the words of leaders who range from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to the Secretary of State, the United States faces a “national security crisis” when it comes to our economic security situation. The U.S. debt presently stands at $16 trillion and growing.

congressional budget office

What makes the problem worse is the poor track record that both parties have at shrinking this debt. Over the last 50 years, the U.S. has only run a budget surplus five total years.

congressional budget office

This figure is all the more alarming given that the national debt now exceeds America’s gross domestic product. If action is not taken to rein it in, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that in 2050 the U.S. gross debt could reach over three times the size of our GDP, which means the U.S. balance sheet looks less like a superpower and more like Greece.

congressional budget office

Sixteen trillion dollars. Sixteen million million. 16,000,000,000,000. The scale of such numbers dominate any budget discussion not only today, but for the next decade at least. Indeed, the numbers are so astronomical that they lose their meaning. A trillion might as well be a gagazillion or a bodonkajillion. So, perhaps it is useful to imagine what could be bought if somehow the U.S. were to receive a $16 trillion check in the mail. What could America roughly buy with the amount it now owes in debt?

The good news of the recent political crisis over debt and sequestration is that America’s political leaders are finally taking seriously the degree of this problem. For too long, the building mountain of American debt was put in the category of those many problems to deal with “in the long run,” which meant we didn’t deal with it. For prior generations, it was a problem for their grandchildren, then their children’s problem, etc. Now that $16 trillion of debt is our inheritance, we can pass it on no further.

The bad news is how politicians have dealt with this problem, almost exclusively focusing on budget cuts rather than the fundamental drivers of debt growth.

First came the self-inflicted wound of Congress delaying on extending the debt ceiling in fall 2011, which prompted a downgrading of the U.S.’s bond rating. When they finally did extend it, the literally last minute deal came with conditions, what is known the Budget Control Act of 2011, that created the current sequestration predicament.

This law entailed a first wave of over $400 billion in cuts to U.S. security spending and the creation of a “super-committee” of representatives from both parties in Congress that was tasked with finding a set of reforms that would reverse the debt growth. If no agreement could be reached, the mandatory cuts of sequestration would then kick in at the start of 2013, lopping off $1.2 trillion more in cuts, split between national security and domestic programs. The concept was that the threat of the mandatory cuts would force the two sides to find a way to compromise over the coming year and put together a package of both entitlement and tax reform that poll after poll has found the majority of the American people support.

Unfortunately, the super-committee proved anything but, and failed to come to any agreement. Thus, with the clocking ticking away, the only thing standing between the budget and the swinging axe of sequestration is the slim chance that the rest of the Congress will show the maturity and ability to compromise that its designated representatives on the super-committee lacked.

The hyper-partisan climate, the diminished power of political party leaders over their constituencies, and the context of an election year makes the challenge of Congress coming together all the more difficult. Hopefully, Congress will buck expectations and come to an agreement.

(VIDEO: Command Post: How Will Military Budget Cuts Affect National Security?)

Many believe that this will most likely occur during the “lame duck” session after the fall election. This is a dangerous gamble, as it sets a weighty decision for the last minute and puts the goal of reaching cooperation immediately in the wake of an uncertain election outcome. So, while sequestration is certainly not a positive outcome, it is a potential contingency whose impact should be evaluated.

What many commentators ignore, however, is that the potential scenarios for the future are not either sequestration or zero additional cuts. Indeed, it is highly possible and even probable that the hoped for compromise deal that averts sequestration still will have additional defense cuts of significant scale included in them. For instance, the proposed deals that the super-committee were debating, but unable to execute on, would likely be the starting point of any “lame duck” discussions. These negotiations had additional defense cuts contemplated in the $200 to $300 billion range.

The essential point here is that the U.S. defense budget is most likely headed for cuts of significant scale. This likelihood is not just a matter of sequestration, but again reflects the overall debt problem (indeed, sequestration will only reach a fraction of the debt reduction needed, another reason to avoid it, as it doesn’t solve the problem and instead would have to be returned to again and again). It also reflects the historic pattern U.S. defense budgets have followed for some 60 years.

Department of Defense Annual Budget Authority, FY 1948-2016

(Measures in Billions of 2012 dollars)

U.S. Air Force

What is notable about looking at the historic defense budget is that it shows both the significance and novelty of defense cuts to the current generation, who have seen only growth for the last decade. But it also shows the limits of the various looming cuts scenarios, as compared to past post-war drawdowns. The reductions even under the worst case situation of sequestration scenario would take U.S. defense spending not to the bottom of the historic trough but the rough average of overall spending.

Where these cuts become more significant perhaps, however, is putting them in comparison to the broader American economy. In the past context of both a Cold War and a smaller U.S. economy, a greater percentage of the GDP was spent on defense than now.

U.S. National Defense Historical Spending as a Percentage of Gross Domestic Product

Heritage Foundation

Part 1: A sequestration primer

Part 2: Comparing defense budgets, apples to apples

Part 3: A case study: east Asia

Part 4: Impact on the Korean peninsula

Part 5: Stupid, but not disastrous

Peter W. Singer is director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at Brookings. Check here for the full list of source material for this series of articles.

PHOTOS: Top 10 Most Expensive Military Planes

38 comments
Patrick Shane
Patrick Shane

The F 22 has not been used in a combat despite the initial introduction of this jet in 2005. The last of the 188 planes rolled off the assembly line in April of 2012. It has cost The United States more than $64 billion, more than double the initial expected cost.

Now they have given another contract to Lockheed Martin to fix the mistakes of the 188 planes that have issues.

The US spends more on its military than the next 19 biggest spending nations combined.

This is where our nation needs to cut its spending.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

Rumionemore
Rumionemore

Don't want to hear it. The defense budget should have been brutally sliced decades ago.

Rusty Shackleford
Rusty Shackleford

If we didn't give away, sell, warehouse or destroy 50% of the weapons that we produce every year then perhaps we wouldn't need to have this discussion.

Sebastian Kaine
Sebastian Kaine

I have an idea.  Why not cut the salaries and lifetime solid gold "retirement" packages that congressmen and senators receive?   That would be a good start.  I can understand a salary while doing the job, but who else continues to get benefits the rest of their life after they are no longer in that job?  There are many, many spending cuts that can be and should be considered before gutting our defense budget.  Pulling the US out of unnecessary situations and actually focusing on "defense" wouldn't be a bad option either.

Bill Cat
Bill Cat

"Sequestration."  Wow, now ain't that a dandy new word for military cut-backs?  Sounds more like something that happens when a horse goes to the beach, but anyhow.  The biggest obstacle to surmount in this type of effort will be the MIC -- it's entire existence depends on bombs and bullets and military supplies.  Very deeply- rooted, too   Last year 330 billion was quietly voted for the Defense Budget, and a chunk of that went to industries in every US state, including PR, Guam and Samoa.  

War as we know it today is no longer a WWII type of battle requiring millions of men and rifles and vehicles.  Altho the MIC must surely miss those gravy train days --   almost two million tons of bombs dropped by the US and those buzzards made a profit on every single pound.  Made money on every nut and bolt, helmet and uniform, mess kit and canteen.  Which is why the us has been in about thirty wars, conflicts and police actions since WWII.

The US could easily cut back to a 200k member standing military, the technology is in place to step-down and defend our turf -- without recruiting psychological misfits and potential serial killers.  Rule #1: let other countries settle their own centuries-old grudges and then deal with the winner.   Rule #2 -- no more AID to any country, not food or money or arms or old taxi cabs, nada.  Any corporate entity found violating this rule will be dissolved and it's owners tried for treason.  Rule #3 -- an eye for an eye, bomb a US site and we will decimate the equal amount of property and humans in the offending countries, all of them, with no further negotiation.

The US was once a mighty industrial economy that knew no fear, today it's a silly wet nurse sending billions to countries that hate the very soil we live on.   TCB in the USA!  TCB in the usa!!  TCB in the USA!!!

rokinsteve
rokinsteve

When you think about the half trillion spent on defense every year and how much

is wasted then 55 billion in cuts the first year should be no problem.  

rokinsteve
rokinsteve

It's very interesting that when real deficit cuts are looming the republicans turn

into whiny, wimpy little girls.  Please vote out these gutless wonders in November.

rokinsteve
rokinsteve

If someone in the same position as Sen. John McCain in China said what he has

they would take him out and shoot him. 

Plumbline
Plumbline

Could it be that america, like other nations in the past, have forgotten what made them great........

Daniel 4:30-31..........

30 The king spoke, saying, “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?” 31 While the word was still in the king’s mouth, a voice fell from heaven: “King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: the kingdom has departed from you!

 ..........

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

What? The War on Terrorism is over, per the % of GDP slide? I missed that memo. When Obama departs office in 2016, our debt to GDP ratio will be approaching 140%, notably above Greece's 126% tipping point. That same slide suggests our current debt to GDP ratio is ~ 75% when in actuality it will be 106% by the end of this CY.

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

Per the Percentage of GDP slide, I didn't get the memo. The War on Terrorism is over? Did we win? And what debt is Mr. Singer using to make this slide? At the end of this CY, he correctly notes America's national debt will be $16T. The last I checked our economy is about $15T, which puts us at ~ 106% GDP ratio, not 75% as indicated by the slide. By the time Obama is out of office in 2016, this ratio will be approaching 140% GDP which is notably above Greece's 126% tipping point. Sure Japan is @ 205% GDP but 95% of their debt is domestically owned. Currently, we're at about 70%.

PauseThinkDo
PauseThinkDo

The recent idealogues are blind-faith fanatics with malevolence that have only caused the detriment of this country we live in.

I enjoyed the detailed nature of this article and especially the block: "America's debt could now buy"

More power to the informed!

Gary McCray
Gary McCray

If we aren't better able to get a grip on our economy we won't have a Nation left to defend.

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

No matter how you slice the pie, we still need to reduce

spending by 40%. Maybe we can cut less if the economy picks up, but the fact is

that we're not going to balance the budget solely using discretionary spending

or entitlement programs. It's just not gonna happen.

 

That's not to say that those programs don't need some cuts,

but sequestration needs to be discussed in relation to the whole budget, not

just spending. Does the American Heritage Foundation think that a 60% reduction

in the budgets for Medicare, Medicaid, Depart of Education, Interior, and the

like are going to leave us with a country that's worth the level of military

spending they'd like to see? They make a great argument if you want to get conservative votes, but not if you want to solve our very real problems.

Tim Anderson
Tim Anderson

The US spends more money on their military forces than all the other countries of the world...combined.  Learn from the mistakes of other superpowers (the Spanish Empire, the Dutch Republic, the British Empire, and the USSR) throughout history--if we ignore our debts and continue to spend money recklessly on military might, we will ensure our decline.  Decrease military spending to reasonable levels, lower the debt while continuing to invest in education and domestic energy, including renewables--that will be the way to succeed in the 21st century as a country.

Raphael A. Kosmicki
Raphael A. Kosmicki

The Heritage Foundation is an American conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. Heritage's stated mission is to "formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense".

...Check the source of these fancy charts and R/D and you get your answer. We need to cut the budget and that includes DEFENSE. Deal with it.

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

Good idea. Let's gut all the welfare programs in a similar manner (i.e., one big axe with not thought) and see how that turns out. Oh the howling that would take place.

Raphael A. Kosmicki
Raphael A. Kosmicki

Howling will always take place when you axe something of value....you think balancing the budget can be done with all smiles....get your head out of the clouds. Anytime you budget, even at home, sacrifices have to be made...programs/citizens will moan and complain but like a mom refusing to buy a toy for a kid at checkout it has to be done, no one said it would be easy or fun. It's called responsibility, google it.

Raphael A. Kosmicki
Raphael A. Kosmicki

 So then we agree lol...everything is absolutely on the table for me as well.  In full disclosure, I met Romney, I like Romney...he might just stand a sliver of a % more in terms of negotiation but I'm afraid the way our government works the other side will not be playing fair, tit for tat as they say after the past few years.

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

Thanks for the parenting lesson.

Bro, I am firmly in the camp that says we have to do something about our deficit now rather than later. I just don't think indescriminant cuts would be the way to do it. Nor would you. So unike yourself, I'll be voting for Romney who stands a chance at getting something done about the budget deficit. IMO, everything has to be on the table, including cuts to the military.

rokinsteve
rokinsteve

Great idea.  Let's start with corporate welfare.  Like oil and agra.

Oh, I know you're the one howling now.

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

Oh no, bro! EVERYTHING, and I do mean EVERYTHING has to be on the table. Moreover, EVERYONE has to be told  that they have to give up something to close a $1,300,000,000,000 budget deficit. EVERYONE, bro.

wandmdave
wandmdave

In the last chart which projects our military spend as a percentage of GDP, what kind of economic recovery is assumed in the projected numbers or are they just basing it off of our current GDP?  Also are they assuming the sequestration numbers or one of the other reductions in the the graph above?

kms123
kms123

We cannot have limitless funding for the Armed Forces and tax cuts for the super rich at the expense of everything else as the GOP would like to have it.  

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

Um, bro, the Bush tax cuts helped everyone, not just the rich.

Fatesrider
Fatesrider

 When the average tax cut for the middle class was about 1500/year and the average tax cut for the top scale was several millions a year, you tell me who got helped the most.

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

Citation please. And exactly why shouldn't tax cuts be "fair"? Oh that's right, like Obama, you're a socialist and want the rich to pay for everything.

Whatnow05
Whatnow05

Didn't help America... Hmm let's cut taxes while at war. Which at the time 65% Americans agreed with. But for some reason we didn't want to pay for it. 

Sounds like California voters. 

"Hell yeah we want a high speed rail!"  

"Pay for it...? Pfft just put it on the credit card."

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

Um, bro, the Bush tax cuts were signed into law on June 7, 2001, or more than three months before 9/11. Let me guess, you're a conspiracist who believes Bush either knew about 9/11 or was involved with making it happen. Either way you're a loon.

Andy Wisniewski
Andy Wisniewski

 if you actually bothered to look a those charts relative to Historical trends of DoD Spending/GDP despite fighting 2 hot wars DoD is chronically underfunded relative to average cold war spending

Raphael A. Kosmicki
Raphael A. Kosmicki

If you actually bothered to look at the sources of these charts, you'd realize the data is biased and innacurate. Slick.

michelhb
michelhb

Funny how the term sequestration makes me think of castration.  Sounds like that's what will happen to the U.S. military if Congress can't pull their heads out and work together.  

Gloria Letizia Irion
Gloria Letizia Irion

You know I really believe all this , was caused by our no congress !! they never wanted to cut the defence budget , because  they  make money on the planes that we don~t need ! 

Heterotic
Heterotic

Good article.  National debt is a greater threat to US security than defense cuts, Islam or China.

Raphael A. Kosmicki
Raphael A. Kosmicki

it's not really an article when you run the sources....just a think-tank and military brass promoting agenda report...which is def their right to do...but I don't like how these type of articles portray themselves as unbiased...

Fatesrider
Fatesrider

 I agree.  Several of the charts are utterly incorrect based on the government's own figures for those years.

vstillwell
vstillwell

Ideologies are America's worst enemies. Rational ideas and behavior are thrown out the window in the endless pursuit of ideological purity. Just look at this election cycle as proof. 


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