Will the nation’s vaunted military-industrial complex survive what some have billed as the “disaster” of mandatory sequestration cuts? Yes, and likely stronger than before.
The self-imposed “sequester” wrought by the failure of Congress to reach a budget deal are scheduled to deliver more than $1 trillion in government spending cuts within weeks. Despite promises from the White House and lawmakers that the cuts would be avoided, no new compromise appears imminent to stave off what many claim would be yet another fiscal catastrophe.
But this artificial austerity deadline won’t discriminate in slashing numerous federal programs, some cuts aren’t exactly created equal. And instead of cheering the substantial taxpayer savings to be found in military sequester cuts, many so-called “deficit hawks” are launching a last-ditch political fight to protect hundreds of billions of dollars that can safely be defined as wasteful “pork barrel” spending.
At least $1.2 trillion in mandated spending cuts will automatically go into effect by March 1, the result of botched budget talks between President Obama and Congress in 2011. Now, after more than a year of both sides of the partisan divide insisting that the so-called “sequester” would never actually occur, the massive reductions are almost certain to go through, with talks to find alternate savings or increased revenue stalled as Republicans refuse to raise taxes and Democrats balk at giving up cuts to safety net programs.
Roughly half of the total sequester will fall on the military, with the Pentagon facing between $500 and $600 billion in cuts spread over a ten year period. Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the sequester will be “devastating” for military readiness.
As the U.S. gross domestic product takes a hit from lower defense budgets, federal spending cuts viewed as unthinkable a few months ago — $1.2 trillion falling heavily on the Pentagon — are seen as likely starting March 1.
What’s known as budget sequestration, designed to be so draconian that it would push Democrats and Republicans to compromise on taxes and spending, has hardened the parties’ positions. If the cuts occur, they would require $600 billion in across-the-board military spending reductions over a decade that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called “devastating.”
Once thought of as an unthinkable and unreachable cliff that would force both parties to find a budgetary compromise, the newfound acceptance of sequestration has raised alarms among hawks on Capitol Hill, with Republican senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain warning that a slashed Pentagon budget will end up “destroying the finest military in the history of the world.”
Fortunately for the safety and security of Americans, the two veteran GOP lawmakers are wrong. Unfortunately, their dire prophecies of reckless government spending cuts are all too true when it comes to the other side of sequestration; nearly $700 billion slashed from domestic spending on things like health care, education and jobs programs could very well put an end to any semblance of economic recovery more than four years after the start of the Great Recession.
Economic fallout from the sequester has already come to fruition in the latest government data, with the country’s fourth-quarter GDP shocking experts by posting a decline as 2012 drew to a close. A combination of early defense cuts and fiscal jitters over the rest of sequestration’s indiscriminate future impact ground the US economy to an abrupt halt.
The disappointing GDP report has injected new life to political discussion of the sequester and raised hopes among lawmakers opposed to the self-imposed cuts that a compromise can be forged in the name of economic preservation. President Obama famously declared that the sequester would never happen in an October debate with former presidential foe Mitt Romney, and the White House continues to promise that a deal can still be had.
But the focus remains on avoiding the military’s share of sequestration, not on protecting the vast majority of Americans from the far deeper and more significant austerity of taking a huge bite out of domestic investment and safety net programs.
Contrary to the public hysteria from hawks on Capitol Hill and among the commentariat, no government sector can better handle a decade-long program of spending reductions than the Pentagon. The single largest “entitlement” within the federal government, military and security-related spending currently eats up at least 20 percent of the federal budget, an unprecedented figure for what is officially a “peacetime”US military.
More staggering is the rate at which US military spending has grown. Putting political rhetoric of spending cuts “destroying” the nation’s defense capability aside, the facts speak to themselves about how bloated the Pentagon’s budget have truly become.
Since 9/11, an unimaginable sum of nearly $8 TRILLION has been spent on the military or homeland security expenses, much of it on systems with little in common with the ongoing “war on terror” used to justify these new expenses. While the Pentagon’s annual budget has jumped 81 percent in that same time, the ten-year sequester cuts represent only a 6 percent share of those total military expenditures in the budgetary decade since the 9/11 attacks. The impact of sequestration versus the overall explosion in military spending is a textbook case in false equivalency.
The topline number is this: we have spent $7.6 trillion on the military and homeland security since 9/11. The Pentagon’s base budget – which doesn’t include the costs of fighting our wars – has increased by 81 percent during that time (43 percent when adjusted for inflation). The costs of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have now reached $1.26 trillion. But that only scratches the surface; it doesn’t include the long-term costs of caring for badly wounded soldiers, for example.
One line-item suggests that 9/11 has been used to justify greater military spending across the board; the nuclear weapons budget has shot up by more than a fifth after adjusting for inflation. How intercontinental ballistic missiles that can vaporize whole cities are useful in a “war on terror” is anybody’s guess.
Such growth is unprecedented in our nation’s recent history, with even the far more intense military operations associated with Vietnam or the decades-long Cold War falling short of the rate at which military and security spending rose in the 2000′s.
A graph from the Center for Strategic and International Studies shows that even with sequestration, the cuts facing military outlays are not remotely “scary.”
Even defense contractors, the recipient of much of the post-9/11 security-related government largess, do not share the fear of some lawmakers when it comes to how serious any sequester cuts will be. Some are banking on sequestration being avoided — either by March or in a future deal — while the the indsutry’s biggest players are confident that their well-financed network of lobbyists and political connections will protect their direct access to the federal trough.
In call after call with investors, officials at some of the area’s largest contracting firms refused to guess how much it would cost them if Congress allows the “sequester” to kick in on March 1. Even as their lobbyists keep warning how much the cuts would hurt the industry, the executives are projecting confidence that the sequester will not happen.
Northrop Grumman chief executive Wes Bush said Wednesday that his company’s outlook for the year projects “the sequestration is not triggered” and that Congress barely touches federal contract spending levels for 2013. General Dynamics chief Phebe Novakovic said last week that she had developed a “realistic” risk assessment for the company’s bottom line — and it, too, assumes no sequestration.
Adding to the record of fiscal irresponsibility that has plagued the government’s addiction to military spending are tens of billions of dollars that the Pentagon itself acknowledges has been wasted during the two major wars of the last decade.
A 2011 Pentagon report found that $30 billion has been wasted on improper contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is a total dollar figure nearly equal to one year of cuts to the Pentagon’s budget included in sequestration.
But even the “devastating” consequences of the sequester is not likely to change a culture of rampant military spending or clamp down on the most egregious Pentagon financial blunders. The most infamous modern military boondoggle is actually likely to survive sequestration thanks to a Congress eager to protect Pentagon dollars for their own states and districts.
The F-35, a next generation stealth fighter aircraft years in development and highly touted by the private defense industry, is now on track to make it through sequestration despite being billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. The plane is still in testing and research stages, and not one fighter has been delivered to the military.
Lockheed Martin is still building nearly 60 of the aircraft at various facilities in 47 states, part of the reason why shutting down the F-35 program is politically impossible. No plane is scheduled to be delivered for years to come, but the price tag has already hit a staggering $385 billion as of 2012.
Marketed as the pinnacle of technology and air superiority for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, the F-35 has instead been dogged by construction flaws and a cost as high as the plane can fly.
There are 56 F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters being assembled at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Fort Worth. But because only 20 percent of the testing for the most advanced fighter-bomber in U.S. history is completed, each will probably have to get million-dollar-or-more fixes later.
The F-35 is already the most costly U.S. weapons program underway at about $385 billion. But that figure may go higher with overrun of the per-plane contract price for the 56 craft being assembled — along with the future multimillion-dollar fixes likely to be required for them — and the 15 F-35s completed but not yet delivered to the military services.
The plane is being built with the most sophisticated stealth technology, but initial flight tests have turned up hot spots and cracks associated with metal and composites used on most new aircraft. The development of the software controlling the F-35’s major warfighting functions, the most complex ever planned for an airplane, has been delayed so that the last block will not be introduced to the aircraft until at least June 2015.
Military leaders have actually recommended that Congress defund the construction of the F-35, insisting that the delays and the overall Cold War-era design of the increasingly dated aircraft have made it expendable as the military faces the upcoming sequestration cuts. One Pentagon report said the F-35 program suffers from a “lack of maturity” and should be scaled back immediately.
Despite internal opposition to its further development, the most costly weapons system in American history remains on track and will make it through those “devastating”spending cuts with at worst a slight reduction in plane orders for each military branch that is scheduled to receive the F-35.
Why such repeated calls to pull back from the F-35 have fallen on deaf ears is at the core of the nation’s military spending bloat and why shrill warnings that cuts will “destroy” the Pentagon are hypocritical. Million of dollars in campaign contributions from Lockheed and the political self-interest of scores of lawmakers intent on saving their piece of the F-35 pie has led to the program becoming a rallying cry for hawks and other opponents of a cap on military spending.
Despite criticism from defense secretaries, government investigators and powerful senators, the Pentagon still wants the Joint Strike Fighter. But the Defense Department might want more plane than it needs.
“A lot of times, the Pentagon just wants to sexy these things up and make them do wow stuff when wow is not required,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
With the Pentagon facing $1 trillion in possible cuts, the F-35’s high price tag makes it a prime target. But thanks in part to campaign contributions from its main contractors and their jobs spread across the country, the fighter plane has its own congressional caucus of 48 lawmakers dedicated to saving it at all costs. None of the caucus members hail from Idaho.
When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Jan. 20 that he wouldn’t kill the F-35 outright, there were sighs of relief across the country from subcontractors and parts suppliers.