Commentary Magazine


Military Needs Flexibility in Spending Cuts

Numerous conservatives, including Jonathan, are understandably voicing suspicions that the armed forces are pursuing a “Washington Monument” strategy toward sequestration—in other words deliberately making the most painful cuts possible (such as cancelling a carrier deployment to the Persian Gulf and grounding air wings) so as to increase public support for a repeal of sequestration. As evidence, they can point to numerous examples of wasteful Pentagon spending that, in a more perfect world, should be cancelled before operational readiness is hurt. But the problem with sequestration is that the Pentagon doesn’t have flexibility in applying $46 billion in cuts that have to be implemented by the end of September—it is an automatic process that cuts necessary and not-so-necessary spending alike.

The problem is compounded because Congress has not yet passed a defense budget for 2013; the Department of Defense is forced to operate under a continuing resolution that only provides funding at the 2012 level even though some costs (such as transporting supplies across Pakistan) have spiked. One of the few accounts that are protected is the one for military payroll and benefits—those are safe. But that means that even more must come out of unprotected accounts including the most important one of all—“Operations and Maintenance,” which pays for ongoing military operations.

As Defense News notes: “The Pentagon is expecting a $35 billion shortfall in operations and maintenance (O&M) funding in 2013 should billions of dollars in defense spending reductions and other budget restrictions remain in place for the rest of the fiscal year.” The article goes on to note that “the Army is in the worst shape of all the services, short about 80 percent in O&M accounts,” which is why the army is canceling training for all units not deploying to Afghanistan or South Korea.

Congressional Republicans have tried to provide some relief to the Pentagon by proposing legislation that would give the department more discretion in allocating the cuts. But that has been stymied by President Obama and Senate Democrats, who are apparently pursuing a strategy of maximizing the pain in order to force a repeal of sequestration. House Republicans are now trying anew with a fresh funding plan that increases operations and maintenance funding.

It is fair enough, then, to criticize the president for exacerbating the current crisis—but the fault doesn’t lie with our military leaders who are trying to make the best of a very bad situation.

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