Pentagon warns against government shutdown, but study says it can live on less

Even as Pentagon officials warn lawmakers of the dire effects of a government shutdown, a panel that includes former members of the Joint Chiefs says staffing cuts can safely be made.

Bruce Smith/AP
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel talks with Air Force personnel at Joint Base Charleston near Charleston, S.C., July 17, 2013, on the last day of a three-day trip to visit bases in the Carolinas and Florida.

The Pentagon has begun preparing for a potential government shutdown when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

But even as it warns of the dire consequences of a lapse in full funding for the US military, a new study by a panel that includes four former flag officers on the Joint Chiefs of Staff concludes that that the Pentagon could cut 50,000 civilian employees – as well as 60,000 US troops – without damaging US national security.

“The Defense Department is not a jobs program,” Barry Blechman, an author of the report by the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan global security think tank, said at a press conference Tuesday releasing the report.

He added that lawmakers have “stood in the way” of cuts for fear of alienating big defense contractors who contribute to campaigns and create jobs in key districts.

Top Pentagon officials are telegraphing their own warnings to lawmakers, arguing that if Congress does not pass a budget or pass a continuing resolution by the end of the month, some portions of the Department of Defense will be forced to close.

That said, “the department remains hopeful that a government shutdown will be averted,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter wrote in a memo released this week.

“Prudent management,” however, “requires that we be prepared for all contingencies.”

These contingencies would not impact US troops, who would continue with their normal duties. 

At the same time, “a large number of our civilian employees would be temporarily furloughed,” Carter said. 

Such a scenario is not a tragedy for the authors of the Stimson Center report, which strikes a slightly resigned tone in the face of looming DOD cuts. 

That group noted that in a previous report it released last year it had “laid out a new defense strategy for the United States ... and considered how to implement it at various budgetary levels. We believed that strategy would protect US interests even at much lower levels of spending.”

The problem, the report’s authors said at the press conference Tuesday, is that “we assumed that our political leaders would make any necessary cuts in defense rationally, to ensure the protection of relevant capabilities and make the department more efficient. We were united in our faith that they would not let the indiscriminate cuts caused by sequester to occur.”

Their conclusion? “We were wrong.” 

The sequester – mandatory, across-the-board spending cuts – went into effect in 2013, and “with no fiscal deal in sight it could occur again in fiscal year 2014 and subsequent years.” 

And so the new Stimson Center report offers – as an alternative to what former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and others have referred to as the “meat axe” sequester approach – more targeted, “prudent” cuts that would save $50 billion in fiscal year 2013. 

This includes saving $22 billion by cutting “excess military and civilian personnel in headquarters and defense agencies, cutting back on centralized training.”

A key piece of this is also reforming military retirement and health benefits – a large and growing DOD expense – “in a way that honors our sacred obligation to those who serve.” 

The Stimson Center study group, which includes a handful of retired generals and admirals who have held some of the top posts in their services, also suggests saving another $20 billion by “cutting active forces best suited for protracted wars and some nuclear forces.” 

Instead, they call for “re-emphasizing the cost-effective strategic depth provided by the Guard and Reserve, and expanding investment in cyber-capabilities.” 

Pentagon officials say they are already planning to shrink the Army from a war-time high of 570,000 to 490,000 by 2017. The Stimson center report says the DOD could go further, decreasing the ranks of soldiers to 450,000.

It also suggests reducing the size of the Marine Corps to 160,000 (Pentagon officials would prefer to keep the size of the Corps closer to 182,000.)

“We acknowledge that these recommendations carry a degree of strategic risk,” the Stimson Center authors note. “Realistically, however, significant belt-tightening means doing without some forces we would have preferred to maintain.”

“However, we must stop ignoring fiscal realities,” they add. “The consequences of continuing along the current path are far too dangerous.”

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