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Sequestration and National Security

General Ray Odierno, the army chief of staff, has provided further details of what sequestration could mean for the army–and why it would be so devastating. Already the army is due to decline in size, because of existing budget cuts, from 570,000 active duty personnel today to 490,000 in a few years’ time. If sequestration occurs, Odierno says a total of 200,000 troops could be laid off—35% of the current force. That would result in the smallest army since the dark days of 1940 when, not coincidentally, German, Italian, and Japanese militarists were overrunning the globe.

Supporters of sequestration reply that it’s only fair the military absorb some cuts because of our fiscal crisis. But the military has already absorbed more than its share–unlike domestic programs. As Odierno reminded an audience at the Brookings Institution, in 2010 Secretary of Defense Bob Gates cancelled various procurement programs worth $300 billion, then in 2011 Congress enacted another $487 billion in cuts over 10 years. Thus the sequestration cuts, amounting to $500 billion, come on top of almost $800 billion in existing cuts. The drying up of funds for the war effort in Afghanistan will result in another major hit to the budget; that funding was used to pay for needed training and equipment refitting that will now have to be paid out of the regular defense budget.

Cumulatively, Odierno estimates, “if we implement the 2014 budget without sequestration, it’ll be a 45 percent reduction in the Army budget,” compared to the baseline of 2008. “If we implement sequestration, it’ll be over 50 percent.”

Little wonder than, that Odierno says “today, in my opinion, the greatest threat to our national security is the fiscal uncertainty resulting from the lack of predictability in the budget cycle.”

His words should not be dismissed as the pronouncements of a general bent on preserving his personal prerogatives. They are, instead, the words of a man who has devoted his life to the defense of his country and now sees our front line of defense in jeopardy of collapse. It is hard to exaggerate just how dire the situation is now, especially given that both Democrats and Republicans say there is virtually no chance of reaching a deal before sequestration hits on March 1.

The problem is that President Obama is demanding “revenue enhancements”—i.e., tax increases—along with further cuts to the defense budget as part of any deal to stop sequestration. Republicans, having already gone along on tax hikes once, aren’t budging this time around. Some privately even welcome sequestration; for instance John Makin of the American Enterprise Institute had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that made the pro-sequestration case without once mentioning its impact on defense.

This is the height of irresponsibility all around. Sequestration will have little impact on our fiscal situation (even eliminating the entire Department of Defense will not eliminate the budget deficit) but it will have devastating consequences for our military readiness in ways that will endanger our long-term security. In an ideal world lawmakers would reach a deal to cut entitlement spending instead since that is the real source of our budget woes. In today’s Washington, however, that won’t happen. If Republicans have no choice but to agree to tax hikes to stop sequestration, so be it: Almost any price is worth paying to prevent the evisceration of our most vital military capabilities.


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