Why Pentagon, facing 'doomsday' spending cuts, refuses to plan for them

Pentagon brass say they won't even brook the possibility that $487 billion in mandated spending cuts – their 'doomsday' scenario – will actually come to pass. But if Congress doesn't blink, say analysts, the Pentagon will be in dire straits.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2013 and the Future Years Defense Program on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday.

The Pentagon is making no plans to prepare for half-a-trillion dollars in mandatory budget cuts scheduled to take effect in less than a year, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in testimony Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Such mandatory cuts – triggered after the so-called congressional “super committee” failed in November to reach consensus on deficit-cutting – represent a “doomsday scenario” for the American military that would “virtually devastate” national defense, senior defense officials have repeatedly warned. 

Mr. Panetta emphasized the point Tuesday, warning lawmakers that the cuts amount to a "meat ax" that "we are convinced would hollow out the force and inflict severe damage on our national defense."

For that reason, top Pentagon brass say they refuse to even humor the possibility. “As the president has pointed out and I’ve emphasized, we are not paying attention to sequester,” Mr. Panetta told reporters this month, using Washington-speak for the mandated cuts. "Sequester is crazy."

“We are not planning,” Robert Hale, the Defense Department’s chief financial officer, confirmed Monday. “I know nobody believes this, but it’s true.”

The Pentagon's position on the mandatory cuts is ill-advised, some defense analysts warn. Refusing to prepare any sort of blueprint for cuts of that magnitude – particularly given their supposedly dire consequences – is not only counterintuitive, but also dangerous, they say. 

“If they fail to do that, they run the risk of being unprepared for what is a perfectly foreseeable contingency,” says Todd Harrison, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “There are other options here other than saying, ‘Doomsday,’ folding your cards, and going home.”

There has in fact been some movement on Capitol Hill to exempt the Pentagon from the $487 billion in required cuts, but the appetite for an exemption varies sharply along party lines. 

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, was the lead sponsor a plan unveiled earlier this month to stave off defense cuts under sequester by making up the dollar through a freeze on pay for federal workers. “I believe the cuts are a threat to national security,” he said. 

The McCain plan does not have much support among congressional Democrats, however, who may use the sequester threats as leverage to encourage Republicans to drop their resistance to tax hikes on the wealthy. “The purpose of the sequester is to force us to act, to avoid it,” Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in January. The sequester rule "will only succeed if it’s kept intact. It cannot be splintered.”

Such political games of chicken have affected the Pentagon before, which is, perhaps, all the more reason to plan for cuts under the sequester scenario, analysts say. 

In 1986, automatic budget cuts in the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget Act triggered sequestration for the Pentagon, amounting to 5 percent across-the-board cuts.

“If I were Secretary Panetta, I’d probably have a small group sworn to secrecy ... [preparing] something,” says Andrew Krepinevich, who served during the 1980s in the Office of Net Assessment, the Defense Department's internal think tank.

Politically, such planning is difficult, Dr. Krepinevich acknowledges. Panetta has “already gone out on a limb,” warning of raining "cats and dogs and all this stuff," so it’s tough to walk back from the ledge and say, "No I didn’t really mean that."

Other analysts concede this point. “It’s part of the political game, right? It’s part of the political calculation,” Mr. Harrison says. “The thinking is, ‘If we go ahead and get out in front of this and we say here are the real things we’ll cut that get us down to [the target budget], and you know what, I’m going to do it in a targeted, strategic way that makes the best of what you’re giving me,’ then that’s going to start to look attractive to people in Congress and may actually make it more likely to occur.”

Gamesmanship aside, not planning for such a contingency isn’t wise, he says. “Where I would tweak them is, at least be doing [planning] in the background. At least have that secret team down in the basement of the Pentagon who’s really working on this plan.

“Maybe they have that, or maybe they’re going to get that team going soon,” he adds, hopefully. 

Pentagon officials, however, insist that they do not have a covert planning team. “I’ll raise my right hand – we are not planning,” Mr. Hale, the Pentagon’s comptroller, says. “I think I’d know it if we were.”

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