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August 28, 2012

Defense Budget Planning Adrift

Greetings from the fair city of Indianapolis where the American Legion is holding its annual convention*.

I’ll be here for the next couple of days actually doing some original stories from around the convention, including attending the scheduled speech by Mitt Romney on Wednesday. If I get a chance, I'll tell him you said, "hi".

With the economy, entitlement reform and various and sundry SQUIRRELS! monopolizing most of the campaign conversation not a lot of attention has been paid to national security/military issues. But as you might imagine at a convention with thousands of military veterans, those issues are front and center here.

Yesterday's national security symposium focused heavily on the upcoming sequestration cuts and what they would mean to the military, coming on top of cuts already ordered by the Obama administration and agreed to by Congress (reduction in planed growth/percentage of overall budget but for better or worse that’s always been considered “a cut” in DC) . Combined, the $498 Billion in cuts from last summer and the potential $500 Billion in sequestration over the next decade would deal a devastating blow to national defense.

As defense analyst Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute argued here the sequestration cuts would be particularly devastating in that there’s no strategic rationale for any of them, it’s simply an arbitrary number that Department of Defense will have to make work. Everything from advanced weapons research and procurement to office supplies maybe cut to get to the number, regardless of their importance or impact on current or future operations.

Sequestration would come after two years in which the government has been funded by a Continuing Resolution which for the most part freezes priorities in place and can be hard to get around. She told a terrifying story of how the service chiefs have had to march up to Congress to get basic projects funded. In one case the Army needed to procure four new Chinook helicopters for a unit that was either in or about to go to Afghanistan. They simply didn’t have the standing authority to procure new ones so they had to get Congress to fund a one off order for a unit at war.

Ike Skelton, the former Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee was also on the panel. He’s an anachronism….a pro-defense Democrat. He talked about how his dad made a new friend at a dedication of an American Legion hall back in Missouri after WWI. That friend, who would later become Skelton’s friend as well, was then county judge Harry Truman. That’s the kind of old school Democrat Skelton is. If you didn’t know he was a Democrat, you would have thought you were listening to a Republican member of Congress. They just aren’t making Democrats like that anymore.

His basic point was this is no way to run the military of the world’s sole superpower. Sequestration was never a good idea in his mind but it doesn’t even really deliver its supposed chief virtue…savings. By making military product acquisition less reliable and buying in smaller numbers we wind up paying more per unit for whatever we do end up buying. There’s also the issue of penalties for breaking existing contracts and other costs that aren’t reflected in the whole “just cut it” concept.

What we’re basically seeing is the classic post-war demobilization that every great power has undergone after prolonged conflict. The twist we are putting on it, beyond the mindlessness of sequestration, is that we are trying to do it while we still have 90,000+ troops in harm’s way, after a decade plus of war and heavy use of equipment that needs to be replaced, the continuing specter of global terrorism, the reality of America’s central and indispensable role in the global world order and oh yeah, the need to counter the growing influence of China.

Now you get why no one really wants to talk too much about any of this on the campaign trail. In fairness to Romney, this all happens after the election but before his potential inauguration so he’s somewhat out of the loop on it. Paul Ryan says if he and Romney win, they’ll undo it all retroactively. Eaglen said today she doesn’t think it’s that easy. My sense is no one really knows because no one really thought this through and it was never really meant to happen.

This will all be settled after the election by the lame duck Congress and hopefully the lame duck Obama administration. Of course, these cuts are also tied to the resolution of the so-called “financial cliff” which involves the Bush tax cuts and other tax issues. When you think about it, that really isn’t all that comforting a thought either.

(*Full disclosure: The American Legion invited me out to the convention and covered my travel and lodging expenses. No one from the Legion has seen or asked to see this post and they have no input whatsoever on its content.)

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posted by DrewM. at 08:51 AM

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