WASHINGTON — A funny thing happened on the way to a predicted disaster: The Pentagon is learning to live with the automatic budget cuts its leaders had warned would threaten national security if they took effect.
The change from near-hysteria to sober assessment starts at the top with new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a former maverick Republican senator from Nebraska who’s long pushed for serious restructuring of military spending. He replaced Leon Panetta in February.
Defense analysts say the forced spending reductions – called a sequester on Capitol Hill – and the arrival of a new Pentagon chief are compelling military leaders to focus on core national security needs and to operate more efficiently after the expenditure of what will reach $5 trillion on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and a near doubling of the overall defense budget from 2001 to 2011.
“Things have settled down since the sequester started,” retired Army Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer, an analyst with the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington who speaks regularly with top military officers and civilian Pentagon leaders, told McClatchy.
“They’re looking at how, with a lower budget, to maintain real focus on real threats,” Shaffer said. “The generals are reluctant to speak publicly about it, but there have been no detrimental effects on mission-critical capabilities.”Among the core capabilities that Shaffer said remain unharmed are a broad range of global exercises and deployments involving carrier battle groups and military training teams; military operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere that the Pentagon classifies as “critical” or “sensitive”; and military schools and combat training.
A little-noticed provision, contained in the stopgap funding bill that Congress passed in March, gave the Pentagon more flexibility than other federal agencies in applying its $42 billion share of the automatic cuts through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
While other agencies must apply the cuts equally across all programs, the Pentagon may transfer funds among programs in order to take into account critical national security tasks.
Following the terms of the August 2011 debt-ceiling deal, which put the across-the-board spending cuts in place if Congress failed to find more targeted ones, Obama exempted the nation’s 1.4 million active-duty troops from pay cuts or furloughs.
Pentagon officials announced last week that 680,000 of its 800,000 civilian employees worldwide will go on unpaid furloughs totaling up to 11 days apiece through September, with 120,000 exempt from the temporary layoffs.
“We will furlough the remainder of our civilians and then move money around to try to minimize adverse effects on readiness,” Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale said.
The maximum of 11 furlough days is half the number that Pentagon officials were saying several months ago would be necessary to save money under sequestration. Now teachers at dozens of schools on military bases will be furloughed no more than five days. Some of the 120,000 employees who won’t get furloughed work at Navy shipyards, where they help maintain nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers.
“We’re talking about nuclear safety,” Hale said. “All these workers do nuclear maintenance. So we were really talking about seriously adversely affecting our ability to deploy carriers and submarines. And we made a decision that that was too serious an adverse effect on mission.”
There already has been some impact on the military besides the civilian furloughs. Thirteen of the Air Force’s 46 active-duty squadrons have stopped flying. The Army has curtailed special combat training, and routine maintenance is being delayed in all the main services.
The biggest resistance to Pentagon downsizing may come not from the military, but from Congress.
Many lawmakers oppose trimming or jettisoning expensive new weapons systems such as the problem-plagued F-35 fighter jet, despite recommendations to do so from a broad range of defense experts, because the mammoth projects create jobs in their congressional districts. For similar reasons, a number of lawmakers reject two more rounds of base closures as urged by Hagel and his top commanders.
But with Hagel’s arrival, there’s growing recognition at the Pentagon that the post-Sept. 11, 2001, funding boom can’t be sustained.
Two days after the automatic defense cuts started, Hagel said the Pentagon’s true test lay in prioritizing its expenditures.
“In many respects, the bigger long-term fiscal challenge facing the department is not the flat or declining top-line budget, it is the growing imbalance in where that money is spent internally,” Hagel said in a speech April 3 at National Defense University in Washington.
Pentagon spokesman Carl Woog said Hagel was concerned by the forced funding reductions and wanted lawmakers to replace them with targeted cuts.
“Ships have not sailed,” Woog said. “Hundreds of thousands of civilian employees will soon be furloughed. To avoid further erosion of our capabilities, it is critical that Congress achieves a balanced solution that replaces sequestration. . . . Until that happens, Secretary Hagel will use all authorities available to him to concentrate department spending on our most vital interests, to include the readiness of our forces.”
The Pentagon cuts are part of $85 billion in spending reductions for most discretionary federal programs this fiscal year. The 2011 law that raised the government’s debt ceiling directed Congress to identify targeted spending reductions over a decade, and its failure to do so triggered the broader cuts.
The $42 billion in Pentagon cuts this year represent 6.9 percent of its $605 billion budget. An additional $45 billion in reductions will begin Oct. 1 for the 2014 fiscal year if Congress doesn’t replace the automatic cuts.
In the months before the forced cuts took effect April 1, when Congress was still engaged in a futile scramble to avoid them, then-Pentagon chief Panetta was issuing dire warnings about their impact.
In a Georgetown University speech Feb. 6, Panetta said imposing the automatic cuts “guarantees that we hollow out the military” and would pose “the most serious readiness crisis that this country is going to confront in over a decade.”
Last month, after replacing Panetta as defense secretary and with the forced reductions in place, Hagel spoke in more restrained tones as he ordered a top-to-bottom review of the Pentagon.
“Everything will be on the table during this review: roles and missions, planning, business practices, force structure, personnel and compensation, acquisition and modernization investments, how we operate, and how we measure and maintain readiness,” Hagel said.
Since the forced cuts started, reassurances of continued U.S. military superiority have replaced earlier warnings that, as Panetta put it, the United States would become a “second-rate power” if they took effect. U.S. defense spending makes up 38 percent of all such spending in the world, with the Pentagon still getting as much funding as the militaries of the next 16 nations combined.
“This statistic is true and won’t change much in the coming years,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington last month. “It’s also worth noting that most of the rest of the money that the world spends on defense is spent by countries that are allies and friends of the United States.”
Six prominent research centers from across the political spectrum have released reports in recent months recommending significant reductions in Pentagon spending over the next decade, with the average cut at $510 billion.