Playing defense on the sequestration battle

As January 1 draws near, expect doomsday predictions about big national-security cuts to ramp up

Published August 19, 2012 12:00PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on The American Prospect.

If you’ve been following the news, chances are you have heard of “sequestration” by now. Everyone in national security — from the Pentagon to Congress to industry to the think tanks — seems to agree that the spending cuts would be a menace that deserves to be squelched. But is it?

Sequestration is an automatic spending cut inserted into the Budget Control Act of 2011. The cuts were designed to light a fire under the Supercommittee to agree on specific cuts, because failure would mean a blanket slashing of many areas of the federal budget, gutting both parties’ spending priorities. The Supercommittee didn’t accomplish its given task and the cuts remain, so we might theoretically see the first chunks of the $1.2 trillion in cuts (over ten years) — including $55 billion per year in reduced defense spending — take effect in January. Unless the national security establishment stops it first, that is.

At about $676 billion (in FY2012), U.S. defense spending accounts for approximately half of all worldwide defense spending. If you were to include our allies, together we account for 72 percent of global military spending. (This figure only includes the military’s FY2013 requested “base” budget, war budget, and nuclear weapons budget. It doesn’t include the rest of security spending, which takes the figure up to nearly $1 trillion.) According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the United States spends five times more than China (5.5 percent of global spending) and Russia (3.3 percent), our biggest “adversaries,” combined. (Iran’s military budget is about $9.2 billion.)

This figure reflects a massive increase in military spending in the past decade: Top-line defense spending rose from $412 billion to $700 billion under George W. Bush. Even Ronald Reagan only raised spending by from $444 to $580 billion at his peak, coming down to $524 billion, and Bush 41 dropped that to $435 billion (in 2012 dollars).

To fight the sequester, all the key figures in the fight — as well as the pundits and industry lobbyists and public relations firms — have flooded the media with dire predictions. The hyperbole is impressive, even by Beltway standards.

The big guns at the Pentagon call sequestration “devastating.” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calls it a “doomsday mechanism,” like “shooting ourselves in the head.” Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter called it “assisted suicide.” Deputy Assistant Secretary Brett Lambert called it “fiscal castration." Industry CEOs invaded Washington, and even Dick Cheney visited Congress to urge the House to pass the defense appropriation bill (which provided over $3 billion more than the Pentagon asked for) and the Sequestration Transparency Act. (The latter act, signed by President Obama on August 7, gives the White House 30 days to explain exactly how it plans to implement the cuts, which will provide ammunition for the fight against sequestration by showing where the pain would be felt.)

It’s not just Republicans either: The committee’s top Democrat, Adam Smith, calls it a “pervasive threat to our future.”

President Obama himself reportedly called up the CEO of Lockheed Martin, the nation’s top government contractor (not just in defense), and told him the sequester is not going to happen. When it comes to defense spending, that’s too bad.

A cursory glance at the attacks on sequestration quickly reveals them to be little more than hogwash. Here are some of sequestration’s “unacceptable risk[s]” according to chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Representative Buck McKeon:

Termination of the Joint Strike Fighter, minimal upgrades to existing forces, and a wider “fighter gap”

Evoking Cold War tropes like the “missile gap” — which disingenuously claimed that the Soviets had more, far more, missiles than the United States — seems to be a rhetorical technique favored by hawks to scare us into buying stuff, in this case more fighter planes. Even former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recognized that the so-called fighter gap is “nonsense.”

McKeon’s memo says sequestration would leave the United States with the “smallest tactical fighter force in the history of the Air Force,” but his fear leaves out an essential bit of context — our small tactical fighter force is far larger than any other nation’s in the world.

The United States has more than 3,200 tactical combat aircraft — about 1,000 more than China. Iran is estimated to have 336 combat-capable aircraft. But to the Navy, there is a gap because it doesn’t have as many jets as it wants, and it labels what it wants as a “validated requirement.”

Terminating the Joint Fighter Program — the F-35 Lightning II — would indeed have dire consequences … for Lockheed Martin and a host of other American and foreign contractors (such as General Electric, which has received billions of dollars to build an unnecessary alternate engine that the Pentagon didn’t want). The F-35 is the most expensive weapon system procurement program in American history. Estimates are in the range of $400 billion — and that doesn’t include full lifespan costs, which are estimated to reach up to $1.5 trillion dollars. “Fifth Generation” sounds cool, but we already have the tools to perform the F-35’s mission, and terminating the program would go far toward satisfying the sequester.

Termination of the new strategic bomber critical to America’s future posture in the Asia-Pacific

The term strategic bombing means bombing a country’s economy and popular will (translation: people) into rubble. Strategic bombers carry big payloads of nuclear or heavy conventional bombs. Why do we need a NextGen bomber when we already have the B-1, the B-2, and the B-52 (yes, it’s old), not to mention ballistic missile submarines, cruise-missile ships, and land-based nuclear missiles? Even senior Air Force thinkers say that we have way more nuclear weapons than needed for effective deterrence (311 would be enough), and deterrence is the goal after all. The logic for a new aircraft that the Pentagon is trying to haggle down to $550 million each sounds specious. Former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps General James Cartwright, thinks that all we need are some inexpensive bomb “trucks” that would cost all of $20 thousand apiece.

Delaying new submarines and cutting the existing fleet as nations like China expand anti-sub capabilities

This is another common trope of defense spending paranoia: Other countries may invest in weapons, and therefore we must spend more. Of course, they may be spending to defend themselves against our new systems. It is therefore no shock that China is investing in antisubmarine warfare, considering that observers are surprised by how behind on the times China is.

As to new submarines, we are building new Virginia-class attack submarines at an approximate price of $2.3 billion each, with a total production cost estimated at $83.7 billion, making it one of the world’s ten most expensive weapons programs (all ten are American, as you would expect). The Navy has 72 nuclear submarines. China has 60, and most of them are old and loud diesel-electric subs. Russia has the same total, but its are somewhat more [advanced] nuclear-powered boats. The current bête-noire, Iran, has a grand total of three small, gas-electric, Kilo-class Russian submarines. Clearly we need more.

Shrinking America’s aircraft carrier fleet, reducing power projection capability

The U.S. Navy has 11 carrier battle groups, ten of which are centered upon Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, the largest naval ships in the world. Russia has one carrier in service and has stopped building any more. China has only just entered the aircraft carrier game with a refurbished Soviet ship and a nascent and limited building program that will take years to sail. Even so, a new U.S. carrier is in the works. Its sticker price was $5.16 billion, but that has gone up by $811 million in cost overruns. If sequestration requires $55 billion in annual cuts, this would be an obvious program to cross out.

Termination of the littoral combat ship essential to defeating anti-access threats from nations like Iran

This is a $35 billion-plus program for extremely cool looking new ships that can operate in shallow water that is an excuse for replacing older frigates and anti-mine vessels. It is not possible to overstate just how much more powerful our Navy is than Iran’s. The same goes for the rest of our military. Two aircraft carriers and another one on the way are doing just fine at keeping Iran’s threats to close off the Persian Gulf mere words.


These are the scary sorts of cuts that Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said “would risk hollowing out our force.” Should we be frightened that sequestration would risk reducing us to “presenting less of an overmatch to our adversaries?” It is clear that the United States faces little danger in being outmatched by any potential adversaries. One of McKeon’s memos says the cuts would “Transform a Superpower into a Regional Power.” Sure it would, if by “region” he means “earth.”

By Jeremiah Goulka

Jeremiah Goulka writes about American politics and culture. His most recent work has been published in the American Prospect and Salon.

MORE FROM Jeremiah Goulka

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

National Security Sequestration The American Prospect