The Pentagon is gambling with Congress again over what another round of sequestration will cost the military – and this time, DOD’s threat is a bit more believable. By Stephanie Gaskell
When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel outlined the president’s Pentagon budget request for next year, he also rolled the dice with a move that tries to turn the tables on Congress by using lawmakers’ threat of another sequestration as a bargaining chip. The Obama administration, Hagel said, could avoid cutting deep into several weapons systems and other defense line items in fiscal year 2015. But if sequestration happens again in fiscal year 2016, Hagel said he will be forced to cut even more from the Pentagon budget – cuts he says will leave the military at greater risk.
Hagel’s plan for fiscal year 2015 complies with congressional budget caps that limit the Defense Department budget to $496 billion, he said. President Barack Obama wants to add another $26 billion, from a special new $58 billion fund that would be paid for with “a balanced package of spending and tax reforms.”
“We can manage these anticipated risks under the president’s budget plan, but they would grow significantly if sequester-level cuts return in fiscal year 2016, if our reforms are not accepted or if uncertainty on budget levels continues,” Hagel argued in Monday’s budget briefing. “As I’ve made clear, the scale and timeline of continued sequestration-level cuts would require greater reductions in the military’s size, reach and margin of technological superiority. Under sequestration spending levels, we would be gambling that our military will not be required to respond to multiple major contingencies at the same time.”
It’s not the first time the Pentagon has tried to outwit Congress over sequestration. In November 2011, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had his staff craft for Congress a list of military capabilities that would have to be cut if sequestration ever hit – including the entire nuclear triad leg of intercontinental ballistic missiles. The list was never taken seriously on Capitol Hill, sequester did take effect and the Pentagon quickly claimed that the country – and the ICMB arsenal – would remain protected.
Now Hagel is warning that another round of sequestration would be devastating. Here’s a look at what he said the military will look like in 2016 if Congress doesn’t reverse the Budget Control Act:
The active-duty Army will drop to between 440,000 and 450,000 soldiers in the FY2015 budget. If sequestration happens again in 2016, that number will drop to 420,000. This further cut almost guarantees that the Army would have a tough time of fighting two major conflicts at the same time – a Cold War-era requirement that hawkish critics have resurfaced in discussions about the post-Afghanistan military. But cuts to National Guard and Reserve units – components that played a large role in Iraq and Afghanistan -- are also steep. Today, there are 355,000 soldiers in the Army National Guard. That would drop to 315,000 in 2016. The Army Reserve stands at 205,000 soldiers and would draw down to 185,000 if sequestration happens in 2016. Also, Hagel said the Army would have to cut 50 of the Guard’s fleet of light utility helicopters from the force, setting up a major fight that's been brewing under the radar among helicopter manufacturers and defense leaders over the future role of the Army’s air mission.
“If sequestration spending levels return in 2016 and beyond, we will be forced into much tougher decisions on the Navy surface fleet,” Hagel said. Six additional ships would be laid up and the rate of purchasing destroyers would be stalled. If the cuts persist, Hagel warned that there will be 10 fewer large surface combatant ships by 2023. The Navy also would halt for two years its purchases of F-35s that can land on carriers, an issue that would rattle defense hawks in Congress and set up a political showdown over American military dominance.
The Air Force would have to retire 80 more aircraft, Hagel said, including the entire KC-10 tanker fleet and the Global Hawk Block 40 fleet, which could slow plans to retire the U-2 spy plane. Purchases of the Air Force version of the F-35 also would be slowed, meaning 24 fewer F-35s would be bought through fiscal 2019, arguably increasing their per-unit cost and making it harder to cut the A-10 Warthog close combat fighters. There would be 10 fewer Predator and Reaper 24-hour combat air patrols. The Air Force also would have to take deeper cuts to flying hours, impacting readiness.
The size of the Marine Corps would shrink to 175,000, which is still above the lowest level Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos would accept. In September, Amos said he could manage with a force of 174,000, if necessary. “Based on the detailed planning of our working group, and in conjunction with independent analysis, we have determined that with sequestered budgets a force design of 174,000 is right sized to allow the Marine Corps to remain America’s crisis response force,” Amos wrote in Defense One.