Our debt crisis (exacerbated by Washington myopathy) is a reoccurring phenomenon with which we have become all too familiar. The 2011 debt ceiling debacle, which produced the 2012 fiscal cliff fiasco, which produced the 2013 sequester, many believe, will no longer be kicked down the road again. And the Pentagon will be among the hardest areas of the federal government. The Department of Defense is staring at $42.7 billion in defense cuts (a 9.4 percent cut). The sequester will force defense officials to put 800,000 civilian employees on unpaid leave. More importantly, it would result in permanent defense job losses of roughly 325,000 -- including 48,147 civilian employees at the DoD. The repercussions of such sweeping cuts will likely harm our military and our global respect.
National security leaders are speaking up. Outgoing Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, told his employees in a memo "the rigid nature of the cuts forced upon this department, and their scale, will result in a serious erosion of readiness across the force." For his part, Secretary of State John Kerry warned that "we can’t be strong in the world unless we are strong at home. My credibility as a diplomat working to help other countries create order is strongest when America at last puts its own fiscal house in order, and that has to be now."
And the cuts would harm our forces around the world. "For the U.S. Navy, the rising crescendo of warnings now hits at the heart of the fleet’s activities — the deployed carrier strike groups (CSGs) and amphibious ready groups (ARGs) that project naval power around the world, and that underpin U.S. military activities in the Middle East and the Pacific." Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, warns that CSGs and ARGs will be un-deployable because the cuts will stop “nearly all non-deployed operations." Sequester will also prevent the Navy from training units to replace the two carrier groups in the Middle East and Pacific. (Similarly, Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said the cuts would delay training and that the Army would be forced to send unprepared troops or extend the tours of those already in-country).
While testifying at congressional hearing on behalf of the Navy, Vice Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Mark Ferguson said:
The immediate impact will be to our fleet operations and depot maintenance. . . . We anticipate reducing flight operations and underway days for our deployed forces, cancelling deployments . . . suspending most non-deployed operations such as training and certifications, along with other cost-cutting measures. . . . We will immediately erode the readiness of the force. Over the long term the discretionary budget caps under sequestration will fundamentally change our Navy. We will be compelled to reduce our force structure - our end strength.Moreover, such immediate austerity will negatively impact our ability to project power in Asia, the region where we have recently renewed our efforts with our strategic "pivot." Writing in 2012 about the potential impacts of future sequestration, Michael C. Horowitz, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote:
Decisions about defense spending are integrally linked to the United States’ overall strategy in the Asia-Pacific. Given ongoing uncertainty surrounding North Korea, China’s continuing development of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities, and disputes over the East and South China seas, maintaining a robust presence in the region will be a high priority for any future administration. However, sequestration or other major defense cuts could undermine perceptions of U.S. resolve in the Asia-Pacific and make core U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea doubt Washington’s willingness to invest appropriately in relevant capabilities. Concretely, such cuts could make it more difficult for the United States to maintain its current presence.The recent North Korea nuclear test and the fears of ongoing Iranian uranium enrichment have once again highlighted the threat of global nuclear proliferation. While sanctions have so far failed to prevent Pyongyang from pursuing its nuclear ambitions, a credible deterrent threat that might succeed in keeping a nuclear North Korea in its box requires the U.S. to project power well beyond its borders -- and that requires a well financed navy. In anticipation of the recent nuclear test, "South Korean and U.S. troops began naval drills Monday in a show of force partly directed at North Korea."
Meanwhile, Iran is upping its naval capabilities in the Persian Gulf, which will allow it to continue to endure or evade U.S. sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to give up its nuclear program. They are building a new naval base in the Sea of Oman near Pakistan's border. Iran’s Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari said "[t]he Iranian navy has so far had no military presence in the area, but now, we will be present in the region to defend the interests and maritime resources of our country and exercise a tighter control over the traffic in the region." Iran is already able to evade sanctions. "[T]he most common trick Iran uses to dodge sanctions is ship-to-ship transfers (STS), in which large tankers leaving Iran’s ports offload Iranian oil to smaller vessels. Then, the Iranian oil is blended with that of another country to disguise it. After that, new shipping documents are issued, giving the blended oil shipment a new identity." The next step for the U.S. would be to use naval presence to prevent oil tankers from leaving Iranian ports, which would dramatically escalate tensions and risk military confrontation as Iran continues to expand its naval presence outward. Iran is also becoming more belligerent towards its neighbors by increasing its naval presence near Iranian-occupied islands that are also claimed by the United Arab Emirates. "The islands sit near oil shipping routes at the mouth of the strategic Strait of Hormuz and the challenge over their sovereignty is a constant threat to Iran's fragile relations with its Arab neighbors."
The U.S. Navy is also going through a technological transition amid calls for austerity. Overcoming a dwindling naval fleet (let's bring back 1916!) through superior technological improvements will be important in the future. But so will making strategic decisions that enhance our capabilities rather than waste money ineffective procurements. The Littoral Combat Ship, designed to be quick and maneuverable and flexible for diverse naval action in shallow coastal waters, has become a funding black hole that Congress keeps filling. The program has ballooned to $37 billion, and questions remain as to its combat effectiveness. With fewer armaments and limited armor than other ships, the LCS will be vulnerable to attack from air, sea, or ground forces despite its faster speed. (Even at 40 knots, the LCS can't outrun cruise missiles.)
How the sequester shakes out will influence our ability project power. Brains need to be used.