Pentagon 'doomsday'? Or are super committee failure fears overblown?

Pentagon leaders have said the automatic cuts set to kick in now that the deficit super committee has failed would be catastrophic. But in reality, the cuts might not be too bad, experts say. 

Evan Vucci/AP
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington last week. Debate over Pentagon spending cuts has heated up after the failure of Congress’s super committee Monday.

It is the Pentagon’s self-described worst nightmare: The failure of the super committee to reach a deficit deal will now trigger what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has described as a “doomsday” scenario. 

Namely, this entails $600 billion in mandatory budget cuts during the next decade – in addition to $450 billion in cuts that the Pentagon had already agreed to. 

Mr. Panetta for his part has provided impassioned pleas against the mandatory cuts, warning for months against their dangers to the US military. “It is a ship without sailors. It’s a brigade without bullets. It’s an air wing without enough trained pilots,” he told lawmakers on Capitol Hill earlier this month. “It’s a paper tiger.”

In short, he warned, “It invites aggression.” 

Such dire exhortations, however, are causing some budget analysts to roll their eyes, as they note that even the most extreme cuts would merely bring Pentagon spending back to 2007 levels. 

Others have calmly pointed out that the mandatory cuts – which are not slated to go into effect until January 2013 – are unlikely to survive the election year. At such times, politicos are generally loath to take on the Pentagon. Instead, presidential candidates and lawmakers alike tend to compete to outdo each other in assuring voters that they are more committed to strong national defense than their opponent.

For their part, Pentagon number-crunchers are so confident that the mandatory cuts will be rolled back that they have not made any plans for how to carry them out.

Some in Congress have already vowed to fight the mandatory cuts. The scolding on both sides of the political aisle began almost as soon as the super committee’s failure to reach an agreement was announced.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R) of California, said Monday that he would introduce legislation to block any automatic defense cuts. “I will not be the armed services chairman who presides over crippling our military,” he said. 

Not to be outdone, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the committee’s top Democrat, signaled his opposition. “The Department of Defense now faces deep, indiscriminate cuts that would not be based on sound policy or strategic review and could undermine our national security,” he said in a statement released Tuesday. “This is no way to defend our nation.”

Yet even the worst-case scenario – the $600 billion in defense budget cuts triggered by the mechanism known as “sequestration” – would bring the Pentagon’s base budget to roughly $472 billion in fiscal year 2013, says Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “This would bring the budget back to approximately the same level of funding as FY 2007, adjusting for inflation,” he notes.

Funding would fall by about 11 percent in real terms from fiscal year 2012 to fiscal year 2013, and “only grow with inflation for the rest of the decade,” Mr. Harrison adds. 

War funding would not be a part of this math. It is specifically exempted from sequestration.

This means, Harrison points out, that there is an “incentive for the Pentagon to move items from the base budget to the war budget in order to avoid the budget caps in future years,” he adds. “While it is not clear how much maneuvering Congress will tolerate, it is notable that Senate appropriators moved some $10 billion of funding requested in the base budget to the war budget in their markup of the FY 2012 defense appropriations bill.” 

For these reasons, it appears that a number of senior defense officials remain rather sanguine in the face of sequestration. 

Many believe Capitol Hill will heed Panetta’s warnings. “The secretary’s effort, which I think has been pretty visible, has been to argue why [sequestration is] a bad outcome,” Mike McCord, the Pentagon’s deputy comptroller, told the industry publication Defense News.

“We’re not doing any planning at this time,” he pointedly added, “for how we would implement such a cut.” 

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