Battleland

Pentagon Sequestysteria

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Ever since the Cold War ended, the Pentagon has been pushing to become more “flexible” and “agile,” to use two words frequently heard at Defense Department briefings and found burrowed into innumerable Pentagon reports.

So how come the building is so flummoxed by a looming budget cut of 10%?

It’s a strange thing, this sequester – especially the Pentagon’s over-reaction. Sure, entitlement spending is driving the budget crisis. But that doesn’t mean military spending should be bullet-proof.

Yet instead of smartly saluting and doing what it has been told, the U.S. military has been wailing for more than a year about how the impending cuts – amounting to more than $500 billion over the coming decade – will cripple U.S. national security.

Looking like nothing so much as the Bolshoi Ballet, the choreographed screams about coming cuts has gone too far, even for hawks like conservative columnist George Will. In Sunday’s Washington Post, Will protested the Navy’s recent delay in dispatching the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman to the Persian Gulf, purportedly due to the looming budget shortfall:

The Navy is saying it cannot find cuts to programs or deployments less essential than the Truman deployment. The Navy’s participation in the political campaign to pressure Congress into unraveling the sequester is crude, obvious and shameful, and it should earn the Navy’s budget especially skeptical scrutiny by Congress. The Defense Department’s civilian employment has grown 17 percent since 2002. In 2012, defense spending on civilian personnel than in 2002. And the Truman must stay in Norfolk? This is, strictly speaking, unbelievable.

[Battleland modestly believes Will gleaned these facts from our post last month linking him to a Government Accountability Office report containing them -- Whatever Floats Your Bloat, By George! – but is pleased, nonetheless, to share such interesting tidbits far and wide.]

Here’s something to keep in mind: the Department of Defense budget, strictly speaking, isn’t elastic. It doesn’t expand and shrink on a moment’s notice. According to the rulebook, wars and other major operations are not funded in its budget. Its annual spending plan is designed to maintain the readiness of the U.S. military by training and outfitting it for combat.

When war happens, as has occurred several times since 9/11, the bulk of that cost is funded through so-called “supplementals,” which are chunks of extra money added to the so-called “base budget.” In typical Pentagon fashion, the Defense Department started referring to these supplementals as “Overseas Contingency Operations,” or OCOs, which muddies the water and confuses folks trying to keep track of military spending, but it’s basically the same bonus pot of money.

cato chart

Cato Institute

The bottom line is simple: in the decade after 9/11, the Pentagon pocketed more than $1 trillion in such budget add-ons. Truth be told, much of that money went to buy weapons unrelated to the wars. The military became intoxicated by easy money, and — like many drunks — doesn’t want to give it up.

Weaning the building off this geyser of cash, combined with $487 billion in cuts already made in Pentagon spending plans for the coming decade (that didn’t represent a cut, but merely a slower rate of growth than what the Defense Department said it needed), as well as the looming cuts slated to take place if the sequester kicks in on Friday, is what has Pentagon bean-counters up in arms.

The notion that the nation can’t trim its military spending back to 2007 levels – which is what the sequester would do – is bizarre. That level is higher than the Cold War average.

The martial sturm und drang it has engendered is a poor reflection on the military’s so-called leadership. The willing participation by uniformed budgeteers has turned them from warriors into just another special interest pleading their case.

As you hear the continued teeth-gnashing from the Pentagon this week, remember that such sounds aren’t because the U.S. military’s future may be so bleak, but because its recent past has been so gluttonous.

12 comments
bryanclark00
bryanclark00

(continuation of last comment) find the savings.

The Truman not deploying was because the Navy had few options to save operations money this year and keep a carrier in the Arabian Gulf full time. Delaying Truman allowed paying for the training of the next carrier and the one after. After this fiscal year, the reductions you note are manageable, but will mean changes in strategy and what the military buys, as you note.

bryanclark00
bryanclark00

Mark, the problem for the Navy from the sequester is not the impact of the reduction on the overall budget, but the reduction it, combined with the ongoing continuing resolution on this year's operating account. The continuing resolution didn't allow for the shift of dollars from procurement to operations in the budget submitted for this year because of more operations in the Middle East and Pacific. The sequester then adds to the operations shortfall this year by cutting the account by about 10 percent. Since the year is half done, the Navy has fewer ways to

btt1943
btt1943

This yearly budget business is funny, it applies to practically all governments. Once the budget has been approved, it must be spent completely before the last day, never mind if it is wasted or unaccounted for, or even goes into someone's pocket. No wonder so many governments are crying for more and more cash for the next budget.     (mtd1943)

stuart_zechman
stuart_zechman

Mark Thompson:

"Entitlement spending" is not driving a "budget crisis."

If you mean to say "the high price --twice the price of health care consumables in the OECD world-- of what Medicare is obliged to pay for is contributing to deficits," then perhaps a more precise description would leave your readers with a more accurate understanding of the matter at hand.

Understanding that DoD budget is the (well-taken) point of your post, still, please consider describing the reasons for current public debt levels with the accuracy required not to give readers the impression that "entitlements," i.e. Social Security (which has its own, separate revenue source wholly independent from general taxation, as designed), are somehow responsible for or even contribute to  the 16 trillion dollars in accumulated US public debt, or the 1.1 trillion 2012 deficit.

Thanks so much for not inadvertently constribution public misinformation  regarding Social Security, Mark Thompson, and thanks for this otherwise informative and interesting piece.



JackBrumbelow
JackBrumbelow

If you don't believe that there is a lot of slop in the DOD budget, hang around any procurement office on September 30.  Th ewhole time is focused on SPENDING ANYTHING WE HAVE LEFT OVER ON ANYTHING WE CAN THINK OF.  I know, been there done that...


cent-fan
cent-fan

I work in an industry that does defense projects too.I’ve been working on one very on and off for four years and it’s nowhere near deployment.Its need is contingent on whether upgrades will be budgeted or not, but by the time they develop the hardware upgrade the technology or strategic planning has passed it by.It might limp along to actual hardware units but those will sit in the crate until the Second Coming or China buys them for scrap.

 The defense matrix is huge and unwieldy.There are countless roads to nowhere.At least many private companies doing the work keep an eye on their own priorities and don’t put too much wheel spinning in technology that won’t pay off in some other application somewhere else… but the taxpayers pay for all the corporate research even if it never goes to defense in the end.

bobell
bobell

I work in DoD, Mark, and I know as well as anyone that there is lots of bloat in the military budget. But before you start blaming it all on the generals (and admirals), don't forget that Congress routinely forces the military to buy stuff they don't need.  And don't forget also that Keynes was right -- which means that unplanned-for cuts in the militatry budget could boost unemployment and even threaten a double-dip of recession.

Our national economy is a giant machine with lots of moving parts, and now is not a good time to be cutting spending -- trillion-dollar deficits notwithstanding.  But if military spending has to be cut, the sequester is pretty much the dumbest way to cut it. I suppose it wouold be even dumber to assign priorities to defense programs and then cut the most necessary, but short of that, the sequester takes the cake.

Thanks a lot, Congress.

roknsteve
roknsteve

Will the adults in charge please give the generals their flying tanks before they turn purple from holding their breath.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@JackBrumbelow 

Um, yeah.  Government offices kind of need to do that.  If they don't spend all of their allocated budget, it takes a cut next year (often to the detriment of the department and its employees).  It sounds bass-ackwards that they should be punished for saving money but that's how it works in the public sector.

MarkThompson_DC
MarkThompson_DC

@bobell Agreed on pt 1. As for your 2nd pt., if not now, when? How much longer do we keep putting our kids and grandkids into debt?

bobell
bobell

@MarkThompson_DC First, thanks for responding.  Feedback is important.

As for your question, "How much longer do we keep putting our kids and grandkids into debt?" there's a lengthy macroeconomic answer to that, but, boiled down to its essentials, the answer is "Until the problem of debt is more immediate than the problem of unemployment."  It's not wrong to be concerned about the debt, but focusing on debt now, to the disadvantage of employment, is like trying to shut off the kitchen faucet while rain is pouring through the roof.

Focusing on debt in a recession is called "austerity."  How well does that work?  Look at Europe. which kindly undertook the experiment so we wouldn't have to.  Now we seem poised to follow their example.  Boy, will we be sorry!


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