Beyond furloughs lies threat of military decline

The News TribuneJuly 30, 2013 

The military’s purpose is to protect the country, not support big payrolls. If furloughing its civilian employees were part of a calculated effort to strengthen core military readiness, they’d be a sign of healthy strategic thinking.

Unfortunately, they’re a sign of precisely the opposite: Uncalculated, reckless cuts driven by the failure of Congress and the president to agree on a rational plan to reduce federal deficits.

The cuts are mandated by sequestration, a scheme deliberately designed to be so dumb and destructive that Republicans and Democrats would come up with a compromise rather than let it take effect.

To force tax-hating but defense-minded House Republicans on board, it threatened to wring $500 billion out of the military over the next 10 years — on top of $487 billion in planned reductions the armed forces were already facing. Surely no one would let this happen, right?

As it turned out, many of those Republicans hated taxes so much they were willing to find out what a decimated Defense Department looked like.

The one-day-a-week furloughs civilians are now enduring are unavoidable under sequestration. They account for $1.8 billion out of the $37 billion worth of savings the Pentagon has had to come up in fiscal 2013.

There are ways to soften the blow. For example, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer proposes to protect the security clearances of civilians who’ve suffered financial delinquencies as a result of the furloughs. Still, it’s always going to hurt when a family loses a fifth of its income.

But the 2013 squeeze is minor compared to what’s in store if Congress can’t get its act together. The base defense budget for 2014 is about $520 billion. Sequestration mandates a 10 percent reduction; if it remains in place, more than $50 billion will be taken from that base next year and the years following.

Yes, there’s fat in the Pentagon, but previously planned cuts had already targeted much of that. (Congress keeps many options — especially base closures and cancellation of unwanted weapons systems — off limits.)

The Defense Department cannot economize on urgent necessities, such as support for front line troops and naval patrols of trouble spots. The bulk of the cuts must fall on non-urgent necessities.

These include such basics as flight training, recruitment, overhauls of naval vessels, aircraft maintenance and replacement of worn-out Marine landing craft. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently told Congress that military promotions may be on the chopping block as early as next year.

Let the foundations of readiness slide a few years, and what you’ve got is a hollowed-out military. Pacifists may welcome that prospect — but so would potential aggressors in North Korea, Iran and the jihadist world. The U.S. military remains the chief Western counterweight to a multitude of dangers, and Congress shouldn’t squander its strength for the sake of a partisan dispute.

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