Sequestration: The Unintelligence Choice

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As They Usually Say on Lousy Maps: Not to scale.

We are now over a month into sequestration, the across-the-board budget cuts mandated by Congress when it and the White House failed to reach a budget agreement.

The predictions for what would happen should sequestration go into effect were both dire and banal, depending on the prognosticator. Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Army’s General Ray Odierno in particular, repeatedly warned massive military cuts would severely damage readiness for a generation.

On the other hand, quite a few experts said the cuts were far from ‘massive,’ amounting to only a tiny fraction of the overall U.S. economy. Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, was quoted in The Huffington Post in February saying, “Somehow, the idea that if we go back to 2007 military funding levels we’re going to be a second-rate power, well that’s overdoing it.”

But these were just predictions, and both sides had varying motives to say what they said. Now we are at a point where we have a better idea of how the sequestration cuts will actually impact the military — specifically the defense intelligence community, which is my area of interest — as they are implemented over the course of the next few months.

I’m writing about this topic because I have many professional acquaintances, and some close friends, who are going to be affected by sequestration. More importantly, I’m concerned about how it might affect my country’s security.

There is no question differences of opinion about the effects of mandated budget cuts will continue. What is equally certain is there will be unintended consequences. Do we as a nation want to risk the unintended consequences of sequestration that endanger the security of the United States, purely because of bipartisan inaction?

While it is true sequestration will only reduce the military’s overall budget by a relatively small portion, 7.9% in 2013 according to the OMB, it’s how the cuts are mandated that are having the real detrimental impact. Administrators are given very little flexibility in how the cuts are applied. The mandate is to reduce all or most programs by a little, instead of allowing the people in charge of budgets decide where to best make cuts so as to minimally impact operations or readiness.

The public has recently seen the sheer arbitrary nature of the cuts when the FAA began to furlough tower control personnel, resulting in lengthy delays at some airports. When the sequester has such a highly visible impact on the public the public takes notice, even though a few extra hours of delays don’t have a significant impact on most Americans.

Congress and the White House have acted to stop the FAA furloughs because of immediate public outrage. But what about when the cuts impact areas where the public has almost no insight, at least, not until catastrophic failures occur? The issue of military readiness is a problem, of course, but even more importantly there’s the impact the sequester will have on intelligence collection and analysis.

Concerns regarding cuts in training across the military have been discussed quite a bit over the last few months. As just one example, the Navy is dramatically curtailing its flight time for pilots, including squadrons currently deployed. Flight hours are being cut to the lowest possible rates to technically maintain safety. The number of flight hours needed to be “safe,” though, is not necessarily what is needed for pilots to maintain proficiency for actually operating the equipment over a prolonged period of time.

What does that mean? It means that at some point, the Navy is likely to lose an aircraft, and possibly a pilot, due to decaying pilot skills. Which, given the multi-million dollar expense for each aircraft, would ironically wipe out whatever was saved by cutting down on flight hours. And of course, a pilot’s life is beyond cost.

The vast majority of this nation’s intelligence collection and processing is done by Department of Defense civilian employees. While there are thousands of contractors and uniformed military personnel who supplement such Pentagon civilians, the corporate knowledge of the defense-intelligence community resides with career civilian intelligence professionals. And you can bet sequester’s dull ax will cut deeply into contractor personnel as well.

These professionals are middle class men and women, many with families, who are constantly faced with a customer who is always hungry for more information. Not just more information, but accurate information in a world where uncertainty and imperfect raw intelligence are all our intelligence professionals have to work with.

Ten-hour workdays and getting called back in after hours or on a weekend are not just common, they are routine. It’s the nature of the job and it is what decision makers in the Pentagon, Congress and the Executive office demand as they must make choices, sometimes with very little lead time, on how to deal with rogue regimes, terrorist threats or dozens of unpredictable crises across the globe.

With furloughs due to sequestration apparently imminent, Pentagon civilian intelligence professionals will only be allowed to work 32 hours a week for 14 weeks. No more overtime, no more long weekends. This is, in effect, a 20% cut in pay for 14 weeks for middle-class workers.

Many of our intelligence centers are in places – like Washington, D.C. — where the cost of living is extremely high. Even in parts of the country where the cost of living is a bit lower, such as Tampa (where Central Command is headquartered), a 20% pay cut is severe. There is a real possibility the cuts will force intelligence professionals to find work elsewhere, degrading institutional knowledge and experience built up over decades.

It’s also worth considering what sequester-mandated furloughs mean for intelligence production. The demand certainly isn’t going to lessen, not when our country is faced with a cascade of global problems: an unpredictable North Korea, heightened rhetoric between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, an emboldened Iran, Syria’s use of chemical weapons and the perennial threat of Islamist terrorism, for starters.

So who is going to take up the slack when government civilians are MIA and a critical answer is needed right now? The result will inevitably be a situation where our national-security leaders will be forced to make decisions based on less-than-optimum information than they would otherwise have had. I’m not predicting disaster, but the across-the-board cuts forced by sequestration will hurt our government’s ability to make decisions in a crisis.

We just don’t know how much damage it has caused until something bad happens.

J.E. McCollough is a Marine Corps combat veteran. He served from 1996 to 2005 and was a counterintelligence specialist, and resides in Portland, Ore.