Joint Base Lewis-McChord emerged victorious this week in the Army’s latest budget convulsion. Better yet, it was an honest victory.
Under the brainless illogic of the 2011 Budget Control Act, the U.S. military potentially faces hundreds of billions of dollars in spending cuts in coming years. The Army’s share of that this year is forcing a reduction in troop strength from 490,000 to 450,000 active-duty soldiers. As one of the Army largest bases, JBLM conceivably might have lost enough troops and civilian employees to throw the South Sound economy into a local recession.
That disaster didn’t happen. Under a Pentagon plan released Wednesday, JBLM will lose only 1,250 soldiers, leaving 25,000 in place. Compare that 5 percent troop loss with the 29 percent Fort Benning, Georgia, is losing, and the 59 percent loss to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska.
Politics deserves some credit. Washington’s congressional delegation worked hard to ward off the destroying angel, and the outpouring of community support for JBLM last winter must have impressed the Pentagon.
But apolitical factors of geography and finance made the most compelling case to keep those 25,000 soldiers at JBLM.
America’s global strategy is increasingly focused on the Pacific, and JBLM is the Army’s only major installation in the West anywhere near the ocean. The Pentagon has also invested many billions of dollars in the Army-Air Force base over the last 20 years, particularly during the military buildup that accompanied the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Ultimately, the Defense Department couldn’t walk away from JBLM’s strategic location and sunk costs.
This could be a short-lived victory, though, if Congress keeps on subordinating national defense to its legislative gridlock over domestic and military spending.
The gridlock is embodied in the Budget Control Act, which spawned the abomination called sequestration. Sequestration is designed to force $1 trillion worth of automatic cuts, divided 50-50 between domestic programs and national defense. It was supposed to be so ridiculously mindless and painful that Democrats and Republicans would feel compelled to avert it by coming up with a reasonable budget deal.
The two parties ultimately found the mindlessness and pain easier to swallow than compromise, so sequestration is scheduled to eat relentlessly into the nation’s military readiness.
Unless Congress – which is now entirely in Republican hands – repeals sequestration, the Army will likely have to cut another 30,000 troops in two years. JBLM will again be in jeopardy along with other important defense assets.
Meanwhile, the nation’s lawmakers are appeasing their constituents by perpetuating programs the Pentagon doesn’t want, including obsolete military bases and such weapons systems as the A-10 aircraft.
America’s potential adversaries – especially China, Russia and Iran – are not disarming. But the meat ax of sequestration threatens to force a 14 percent cut in U.S. Army troop strength over the next three years.
Maybe the world will have become 14 percent safer by then. And maybe bunnies will rule the world.