ON MARCH 1, absent a legislative fix that still seems unlikely, the fiscal ax will fall on every facet of the US government. The so-called “sequester” will automatically chop $85 billion from all discretionary spending, with no room for negotiation or a reasoned policy analysis that would protect successful programs over the more expendable ones. The sequester is a bad idea. There is no reason that government should function this way. But, as some commentators have begun to note, it is finally forcing an important reckoning at the Pentagon regarding spending and cost savings. If nothing else, the threat of sequester has the Defense Department, which Congress has often treated as a sacred cow, engaging in the kind of cost-benefit analysis that other departments do routinely.
Pentagon leaders are raising concerns that the sequester will jeopardize America’s security while simultaneously claiming that they can handle many of the cuts. The latter is likely the truer position. The threats the military faces are constantly changing, and range from cyber attacks from China to terrorism threats from Al Qaeda, and yet programs designed for Cold War-like deterrence remain largely uncut. According to the Congressional Budget Office, even if the sequester were to go into effect, the Pentagon’s roughly $700 billion budget would still grow by 2.4 percent in 2014.
Ground warfare, which is expensive and dangerous, is not the key focus of a 21st-century military. The Pentagon’s budget is replete with spending that may no longer be essential: the 70-percent-over-budget F-35 jet fighter, M1 Army tanks, and a bloated nuclear arsenal inconsistent with strategic need. In some instances, the military doesn’t even want these weapons but is being forced by hungry legislators who see money for their districts. Reductions in service personnel, including military staffing policies that tend to have 10 lieutenants follow every general, are also a possibility. As the Afghanistan war ends, the services will be able to save resources by focusing on their traditional missions, rather than nation-building or counterinsurgency.
Still, the trouble with the sequester is not only that it is indiscriminate, but that it couples the required 8 percent reduction in defense programs with a 5 percent reduction in domestic programs. While waste exists throughout the government, the two “hatchets” are not the same. A lack of normal budget accountability at the Pentagon, from weapons systems to health care spending for its civilian employees, bears no small responsibility for America’s fiscal woes. There are worse outcomes than for the Pentagon to look for cost savings, even under the threat of sequester. Should Congress find a way to replace the sequester with more reasoned cuts — as it should — the military must still be held to account for its budget.