Special Reports

Deep military cuts begin as spending decisions lag

Congressional leaders appear to have reach consensus that it is safer politically to allow deep and arbitrary cuts to military budgets than it is to negotiate a large debt-reduction deal that would have names attached.

With Republicans and Democrats unwilling to make difficult decisions to address budget deficits in a balanced way, the military is being forced to cut training; cancel construction projects; defer maintenance of ships, aircraft and vehicles; cancel professional conferences; halt most temporary duty assignments; and interrupt supply and equipment purchases.

Quality of life for the military also is being affected as dependents lose jobs; local economies and businesses lose contracts; and base operations, including family support programs, take immediate budget cuts.

The entire Department of Defense has imposed a civilian-hiring freeze. At least 46,000 temporary employees are getting pink slips, and many more employees under “term” contracts won’t see those contracts renewed.

Gordon Adams, a national security policy specialist with the Stimson Center and a senior White House budget official in the last Clinton administration, said he is “amazed” to watch congressional leaders, in effect, “fold their hands” on trying to prevent deeper defense cuts this year.

With the Iraq War ended and U.S. combat forces scheduled to leave Afghanistan in 2014, defense “is not the centerpiece” of the Capitol Hill budget argument. “The centerpiece is the overall federal budget and (tax) revenue. … This is leadership-driven. The armed services committees are almost irrelevant, which is very unusual.”

Even as Defense officials and military leaders ordered commands to take broad cost-cutting actions, they held out hope that Congress would come to share their concern and take two remedial actions. One is to pass a defense appropriations bill for the fiscal year that began last October, thus removing spending caps imposed by operating through March under continuing budget resolution. The resolution freezes their budgets just below 2012 levels.

Service officials now fear that Congress intends to extend the continuing resolution through September. If so, at a minimum, they seek authority to “reprogram” or transfer money between accounts to fully fund their highest priorities to sustain operations and protect readiness.

Second, Defense officials want Congress to swiftly reach a deficit-reduction deal and avoid budget sequestration, which as adjusted during the Jan. 1 fiscal cliff deal would still impose an 8 percent cut across 2,500 separate defense programs. Sequestration was a scheme Congress concocted in 2011 to scare itself into a debt deal. It has failed.

Effective Feb. 15, the Navy will cancel private-sector contracts for ship maintenance in the last half of fiscal 2013, affecting 10 ships in Norfolk, Va., 10 more in San Diego and one ship apiece in Bremerton, New London, Conn., and Jacksonville, Fla. This alone will save an estimated $600 million.

“The way we have tried to manage this is to protect forward deployed readiness so that our ships, aircraft and sailors forward deployed can continue to do what they need to do. Their mission won’t be affected,” said Rear Adm. John Kirby, Navy chief of information, in a phone interview.

The next goal is to protect training and readiness for “next-to-deploy forces.” That might not be possible, however, if Congress allows sequestration to take effect, as rescheduled, on March 1, Kirby warned.

Operating under a continuing resolution popped a $4.6 billion hole in Navy operations and maintenance budgets. Sequestration would expand that hole by $4 billion, explained Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, chief of naval operations, in fleet-wide message Jan. 25. The Navy would have to stop all deployments to the Caribbean and South America, limit European deployments to ballistic missile defense ships only, and cut steaming and flying hours across the fleet. A majority of ships and aircraft preparing for deployment would see stateside training, flying and steaming operations end, he warned, unless fleet commanders find other budget offsets.

That word “unless” in Greenert’s guidance is significant, Adams said. Like the other services, Adams argued, Navy paints worst-case scenarios for operating under a continuing budget resolution through September and taking the additional sequestration hit. When actually forced to take those cuts, Adams said, sequestration would allow flexibility in how operations and maintenance dollars get chopped. The service can, for example, target personnel service contracts, which have ballooned over a decade of war.

“It’s everything from cutting the grass at Fort Belvoir to serving the food at Bagram Air Base,” Adams said. “That’s an area, given our departure from Iraq and coming out of Afghanistan, that ought to be a low priority.”

The Army’s own “risk mitigation” budget guidance directs a 30 percent cut in base operations support to include “reduced levels of installation service delivery and reduced new and current contracts” for the same. To help implement this, Army leaders promise further guidance “on the use of soldiers to perform installation functions.”

Kirby noted that the Navy isn’t drawing down, however.

“All by itself the continuing resolution is going to have a readiness impact. Those ships will have to get maintenance sooner or later, and it is probably going to cost more. Just like maintenance on your car, defer it and when you finally get it into the garage you’re probably going to need more work than you originally needed and it will cost you more.”

“The other cost is time,” Kirby continued. “If you had that ship scheduled for deployment in 2014 or ’15, now it will not be achievable because of needed maintenance. There’s a real readiness impact.”