Super Committee Failure Hits Military Hard

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Reapers drones needed for combat were delayed when the government almost shut down earlier this year -- sequestration would be even more damaging to national security

Politicians can shrug off the congressional Super Committee’s failure to agree on meaningful deficit reduction. To them, it’s just another budget gimmick that didn’t pan out. But for the U.S. military, the Super Committee fizzle creates debilitating and long-term problems.

The act establishing the committee providing that, if it failed to meet its deficit reduction goals, those goals would be met for it by automatically reducing “discretionary” spending by $1.2 trillion or more, starting in January 2013.  Nearly half of those spending cuts are to be carved out of military accounts. Unfortunately, many in Washington view these pending defense cuts with no sense of urgency. To politicians, 2013 seems a long way off. We can deal with the defense funding problem later, they say. But, as a practical matter, they can’t.

The scheduled sequestration of defense funds is adversely affecting our nation’s defense capabilities now. That’s because the sequestration threat creates tremendous uncertainty about what funding may or may not be available a year-and-a-half from now. And military planning and contracting simply cannot start and stop on a dime. Indeed, start-and-stop directives and wrenching changes in long-term planning typically waste tens of billions of dimes.

The fact that Congress may never technically pull the sequestration “trigger” does nothing to lessen the chaos of uncertainty that now engulfs military planning and budgeting.

Right now, the Pentagon is finalizing its budget for fiscal year 2013 and about to start building their next budget for 2014 — even though Congress has not passed a defense budget for the current fiscal year: 2012.

Also, the looming threat of sequestration virtually guarantees Congress will try to fund defense through a long-term continuing resolution in fiscal year 2013. That would merely perpetuate the uncertainty and exacerbate the problems borne by those in uniform.

We’ve seen these consequences before when the government nearly shut down earlier this year. The Army couldn’t purchase additional Chinook helicopters for troops in Afghanistan and the Air Force had to delay buying additional MQ-9 Reaper drones, also for combat forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The real bottom line of defense sequestration: Any program that cannot demonstrate some sort of “payoff” within a five-year budget plan risks cancellation or truncation. An example of a research program at risk is directed energy weapons. Other programs apt to wind up on the chopping block include expansion of the AC-130 fleet, the MV-22 Osprey, amphibious ships and aircraft, the Littoral Combat Ship, the Joint Strike Fighter, the Joint High Speed Vessel, and what’s left of the Joint Tactical Radio System.

The “trigger” will not be repealed over the next year. Meantime, the damage it inflicts upon the U.S. military will be real, swift and difficult to reverse.

–Mackenzie Eaglen is a Research Fellow for National Security Studies at The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.