The dangers of deep defense cuts
What America's civilian and military leaders are saying

Air Force Master Sgt. Chuck Marsh / Department of Defense

Article Highlights

  • Reminder: Defense officials, civilian leaders call #sequestration 'devastating,' 'very high risk.' http://ow.ly/b6apD

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  • Current law requires across-the-board cuts to the Pentagon budget of more than $500B over 10 years #devastating

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  • A handy list of quotes from the horses' mouths on the dangers of massive defense cuts http://ow.ly/b6apD

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Under current law, the U.S. Department of Defense automatically faces significant spending cuts over the next 10 years—cuts that America’s civilian and military leaders have candidly described as “devastating” and “very high risk.”

This precarious state of the Pentagon’s future fiscal affairs is due to the Budget Control Act, the controversial August 2011 deal by which Congress and the President agreed to raise America’s debt limit.  As part of the bargain, the debt-limit deal placed ceilings to cap the defense budget and other forms of discretionary spending.  In implementing these budgetary caps, the Obama administration proposed in its fiscal year (FY) 2013 budget to cut Pentagon spending by roughly $487 billion over the next decade.  However, because Congress failed to meet the Budget Control Act’s deadline to reduce the long-term deficit by $1.2 trillion, the Pentagon now faces the worst-case scenario:  current law now requires additional across-the-board “sequestration” cuts to the Pentagon budget totaling more than $500 billion over 10 years. 

Unless Congress and the president change current law, sequestration cuts to national defense will enter into effect on Jan. 2, 2013.  In May 2012, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed legislation that would replace the first year of sequester cuts with alternative reductions to mandatory domestic spending.  However, the Democrat-controlled Senate appears not to support this legislation.  Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., recently declared via social media:  “Sequester’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s a balanced approach to reduce the deficit that shares the pain as well as the responsibility.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher for the Defense Department—and America’s long-term national security.  As illustrated by the recent quotations below, civilian and military leaders continue to voice grave concerns about the dangers of deep defense cuts and underscore the urgency of taking immediate action to reverse sequestration.

On the Purpose of Sequestration

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta: “[H]aving served in the Congress and having worked on budget issues most of the time I was in Congress, I’m very concerned that the Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, have to show leadership here, and can’t just allow sequestration to take effect.  I mean, the whole purpose of sequestration, or even developing a crazy vehicle like that, was to ensure that they would exercise leadership to prevent it from happening.  Instead, they weren’t able to come together on any proposal and now we have this thing supposedly taking place in January.” (May 3, 2012)

•    Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta: “There isn't any member I've talked to that doesn't think that sequester is a disaster… All of them understand that it's the wrong way to go.  And I just have to hope that ultimately, they will find the courage and leadership to be able to address that issue, de-trigger sequester, deal with the other challenges that are out there and try to do it as soon as possible because frankly, the longer this drags on, the more of an impact it has in terms of the planning process and in terms of the budget process.  And frankly, even though we're not planning for sequester to take place because it is such a disastrous step if it occurs, it still has an impact within the department and outside the department for planning purposes.” (April 16, 2012)

Daniel Werfel, Controller, Office of Management and Budget:  “The president has made clear that Congress can and should act to avoid the sequester. The intention of the sequester was to drive Congress to a compromise through the threat of mutually disagreeable cuts to both defense and non-defense discretionary funding.  If allowed to occur, the sequester would be highly destructive to national security and domestic priorities and core government functions.” (April 25, 2012)

Congressman John Boehner (R-OH), Speaker of the House of Representatives:  “[W]hen it comes to what's going to happen to our military with these cuts in January, you can imagine that there are a lot of people concerned.  The Defense Secretary's made clear that these cuts will devastate out ability to keep our country safe.  The White House has admitted that these cuts will have a devastating impact on our military. So where is their plan? It's as simple as that.” (May 16, 2012)

Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler (R-MO), Member of the House Armed Services Committee: “The first responsibility of the United States government is to provide for the common defense, Without further action by the Senate and the Obama Administration, significant across the board cuts to defense will take place in January of next year as part of the sequestration process resulting from the failure of legislators to reach an agreement on how to reduce the deficit. This sequestration process came about as a result of the Budget Control Act that raised the debt ceiling – which I voted against.” (May 10, 2012)

Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) and Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI):  “This sequester was never intended to be policy. It was meant to be something both parties wished to avoid, in order to motivate members of the supercommittee to work together…. There is strong bipartisan agreement that the sequester is bad policy and should be replaced.” (May 9, 2012)

Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Ranking Member of the House Budget Committee: “[T]here's no disagreement about the need to replace the meat ax cuts from the sequester with an alternative approach to reducing the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion.  And I want to emphasize that fact. The meat-ax across-the-board cuts to both defense and non-defense are a reckless way to reduce the deficit. And we need a responsible alternative.” (May 14, 2012)

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), Member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the Select Committee on Intelligence: “The good news is that I can’t find anyone around here who actually thinks this is a good idea. Everybody agrees that this would be catastrophic. The bad news is that we can’t find enough people around here who want to do anything about it right away.” (March 29, 2012)

On the Dangers of Sequestration Cuts to Defense

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta: Sequestration “…would have a devastating effect on not only national defense but I think on the rest of the country.  It’s totally unacceptable, and frankly our political leaders cannot allow it to happen.  That’s where I’m coming from on this issue.” (May 3, 2012)

•    Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta:  “I think… the shadow of sequestration is there.  And I don't think we're kidding anybody by saying that somehow, it's not having some impact.  Clearly… the industrial community is concerned about the potential for its impact.  It continues to be a concern that we have as far as the possibility that that could happen.” (April 16, 2012)

General Raymond Odierno, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army:  “[W]hat even makes sequestration worse is we have no say in where the cuts come.  It is directed across every element of our budget, and it's a certain percentage.  So what that would cause us to do is increase the pace of our end strength reductions.  It would cause a hollowness -- significant hollowness in the force.  It would probably cause us to breach many contracts that we already have in place because we would not meet the current requirements that we have on our developmental contracts.  So it would affect every asset that we have in every area.  So that's the concern.” (May 10, 2012)

Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee: “These devastating additional $500 billion in proposed cuts to our military forces would take effect just three months into the new fiscal year.  The Defense Department cannot wait until after this year’s elections to address this issue.  We need to fix it now.  President Obama has already gutted our military with the defense cuts contained in his budget.  Adding sequestration cuts on top of that will have irreparable consequences.” (March 29, 2012)

Congressman Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), House Majority Whip: “The Pentagon shouldn’t be and hasn’t been immune to spending reductions, but it is reckless and irresponsible to make arbitrary cuts to programs vital to our national defense.” (May 3, 2012)

Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee:  “The cuts that I outlined take us right to the limit of acceptable risk. Because the Congressional Super Committee failed to reach an agreement on mandatory spending, a sequestration mechanism will kick in on January 1st. Sequestration takes all the cuts I outlined and doubles them.  It pushes us far past the limit of acceptable risk, and would put this great country in considerable danger.” (March 13, 2012)

•    Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA):  “The cuts will force another one hundred thousand troops out of the Army and Marines. We’ll shrink our Navy to its smallest size since before World War One. And the Air Force will be the smallest in its history. We will not modernize our nuclear deterrent, which hasn’t seen replacement systems in decades and is the smallest since the early 1950s.Active duty military, reservists, federal civilians, and contractors will be laid off. Some assembly lines and shipyards will close.  We estimate that around one and a half million people will lose their jobs as a result of the defense cuts in sequestration.” (March 13, 2012)

Congresswoman Martha Roby (R-AL), Member of the House Armed Services Committee: When commenting on the effects of sequestration: “Our military will cease to operate as we know it today.  They can't.  They don't have the resources.  We will not be able to have the presence that we need to have in certain areas of this world.  And it's frightening." (May 4, 2012)

Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), Chairman of the House Committee on the Budget:  “If there's one thing that we have bipartisan agreement on, if there's one area where we agree with the president and the secretary of defense, it's that this sequester will decimate our military at a time when our men and women are overseas fighting in a war, in a world that has become much more dangerous.” (May 8, 2012)

Senators Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), And John Cornyn (R-TX): “We all agree that the Defense Department must eliminate wasteful programs and continue to find efficiencies; however, our defense policy is becoming less about military strategy and more about fiscal strategy.  Officials are forced to align resources to reflect arbitrary budget numbers rather than actual threats confronting the United States.” (March 28, 2012)

•    “At a minimum, we have to prevent the across-the-board cuts from taking full effect in 2013.” (March 28, 2012)

On President Obama’s Defense Planning and Sequestration

General Lloyd J. Austin III, Vice Chief of Staff, U.S. Army:  “I think [sequestration] would drive us to go back and redo some of our planning, certainly make new assessments. That takes time. That certainly consumes a lot of organizational energy. So we are a bit concerned about that.  I think from an Army perspective, again, we have not done any planning on this, as you know as you indicated. But the back of the envelope calculations are such that this would probably mean a loss of probably another 100,000 troops, 50 percent of those in the Guard and Reserve. And with those kinds of impacts, that probably would drive us to go back and relook our planning efforts here.” (May 10, 2012)

General Philip M. Breedlove, Vice Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force:  “We think that we would definitely not be able to execute the existing strategy if we have to go through sequestration. We echo your remark that it would be devastating. We simply can't afford this one.” (May 10, 2012)

General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., Assistant Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps:  “We have a tendency to view sequestration as a budget issue, but it's really not a budget issue.  It's a re-ordering of our national priorities - it's what we won't be able to do.  And certainly at the strategic level, I think what the Secretary has said is, we won't be able to implement the strategy as currently written if sequestration goes into effect.  From a Marine Corps perspective, we're at 182,000 right now, we're at the margin of being able to meet the strategy.” (May 10, 2012)

Admiral Mark E. Ferguson III, Vice Chief of Naval Operations, U.S. Navy: “I think there are two significant impacts. If you look at sequestration, the impact on the Navy from the $600 billion defense reduction would be about $15 billion a year. That is the amount of the entire ship construction account that we would have to figure out how to spread in our budget and reduce. Waiting until December and then not having a resolution at that point would allow a very short cycle for planning. It will not allow us to make efficient or effective choices. It would also cause us to go back and relook at the strategy because the force that comes out of sequestration is not the force that can support the current strategy that we are operating under.” (May 10, 2012)

Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee: “I worry that President Obama's proposed defense budget is based more on, in my view, what was irresponsible and what we did in the Budget Control Act, and what the Office of Management and Budget has handed you in terms of a number that treats all federal expenditures the same, rather than a clear-eyed, objective assessment of our U.S. national security interests and the kind of military that we need to protect those interests and the American people.” (May 10, 2012)

Congressman Rob Wittman (R-VA), Member of the House Armed Services Committee: “Numbers matter when assessing strategic risk despite the incredible capability of our current ship inventory. With that said, the capabilities of these ships matters as well and we need to find the right balance to execute the maritime strategy of the 21st century.” (April 18, 2012)

The Defending Defense Project is a joint effort of the American Enterprise Institute, the Foreign Policy Initiative, and The Heritage Foundation to promote a sound understanding of the U.S. defense budget and the resource requirements to sustain America’s preeminent military position. To learn more about the effort, contact Gary Schmitt ([email protected]), Robert Zarate ([email protected]), or James Carafano ([email protected]).

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