Some believe that sequestration is good. They believe the across-the-board cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act keep spending under control and have not hurt defense significantly, as military forces continue to get the job done. This view is incorrect. The sequester cuts do hurt, but they hurt in ways that postpone the pain. Specifically, sequester cuts have resulted in the loss of margin for today’s force, making it vulnerable. Worse, the negative consequences will be with us for decades. The decision to keep the sequester in place is essentially a trade of long-term pain for short-term gain, and that is not a good bargain.
Pain from Shallow Cuts Runs Deep
When the sequester cuts were implemented in 2013, some things changed immediately. Military pilots stopped training, and their planes stayed in their hangars. Selected training classes and a few deployments were cancelled. To most people, however, things did not change very much. Our forces remained in Afghanistan, transport aircraft flew, ships continued to sail, and people still came to work. The average American did not feel any pinch. There were no flyovers at major sporting events or military bands on tour, but this seemed to be a small price to pay for fiscal responsibility. When Congress partially restored funds and a degree of flexibility in 2014 and 2015, the sequester seemed almost reasonable.
In war, margin matters. Margin is that little extra that allows for flexibility and resiliency. When things go wrong, as they inevitably do, margin allows for recoverySequestration’s effect on our readiness is that it has cut our margin at nearly every level.
There was much more going on behind the scenes. The Budget Control Act forced the Defense Department to cut accounts in specific ways. Congress prevented cuts to specific programs and excess infrastructure and exempted military members’ salaries and entitlements. This meant that the majority of the cuts came from two areas: readiness, which is the account used to pay for maintenance and training, and modernization, which includes investments in research and the procurement of new equipment.
This is the ugly secret of sequestration’s effect on the military. Cuts that affect readiness and modernization do not result in immediate pain. In fact, these cuts are hardly felt by anyone outside of the military, at least not at first. The true effect of these cuts is that they eat away the margin of capability that give military leaders flexibility when the unexpected happens, but our people can mask this for a while by working longer and harder.
Under sequestration, equipment does not disappear, but it becomes less and less capable of functioning because older, worn-out equipment is difficult to maintain. Bases still exist, but their infrastructure becomes less and less capable as numerous small repairs go unaccomplished. Military members still show up to work, but they are less and less capable because of lost training opportunities. Some call this the “hollowing” of the force. As a commander who has seen the effects of sequestration first-hand, I use the term “brittle.”
Men and women in the U.S. military are trained not to quit. They do everything they can to accomplish their assigned missions. “Can’t” is not in their vocabulary. They will continue to make it happen, even under sequestration, until they can’t…until they run out of margin and reach their limits. When this happens, they quickly go from apparent success to complete failure. In a word, their units are brittle.
In war, margin matters. Margin is that little extra that allows for flexibility and resiliency. It is the ability to go farther, higher or faster than thought necessary. When things go wrong, as they inevitably do, margin allows for recovery. It is capability and capacity in reserve, to be used when the time is right or the chips are down. No matter how advanced our technology, war is fought by humans whose nature combines reason and emotion in uneven proportions. War is always subject to chance and uncertainty. Margin provides flexibility in the face of uncertainty. It helps one overcome surprise or take advantage of opportunity.
Sequestration’s effect on our readiness is that it has cut our margin at nearly every level. When faced with deep cuts, the logical thing to do is to cut the things you don’t need right away. It is much easier to forego spare parts, redundant power grids, secondary water sources, or alternate communications systems, because there is no immediate effect. Under sequestration, preventative maintenance has become a luxury we cannot afford, and when repairs are needed, we often leave things broken.
Things Fall Apart
Unfortunately, our equipment breaks a lot, because it is old and worn out after decades of hard use. This is where sequestration has an even more detrimental effect, as it reinforces a vicious cycle. As our equipment gets older and shows wear from years of use in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, it is increasingly difficult to keep the vehicles rolling, the ships sailing, and the aircraft flying. Accomplishing less preventative maintenance on our equipment—because it saves money in the current budget—means more reactive maintenance with fewer resources, and we end up with longer down times and less capability. The cuts to modernization exacerbate this problem because new equipment is not available to replace the old, and the downward spiral continues.
No one knows what the future holds, but it is increasingly likely that we will see the effects of brittleness soon. The operations to fight Ebola in West Africa, strike against ISIS in the Middle East, and deter an emboldened Russia were piled onto the Defense Department’s long list of responsibilities. As the margin keeps growing thinner and thinner, is a major failure coming soon? Only time will tell. What is almost certain, however, is that sequestration’s real effects will reach far into the future. The modernization problem is not going to abate. Even if resources were allocated today, there would be a significant delay in realizing return on investment.
For all its drawbacks, sequestration is not the real problem. It is a symptom of a larger issue: the lack of meaningful entitlement reform. Entitlements make up over 60% of the federal budget, and this percentage grows every year. The Budget Control Act was intended to force us to take on entitlement reform so that it would not crowd out the rest of the federal budget. It failed. As a result, the sequester cut discretionary spending while leaving entitlements intact. This exacerbated the crowding effect, not only hurting defense but also preventing needed investments in schools, highways, and bridges. Essentially, sequestration is weakening the entire country in ways that are very similar to its effect on the military. Our infrastructure and services are becoming brittle too. Until entitlement reform takes place, both our common defense and our general welfare will continue to decline.
Surely this is not how a great nation solves its problems.
[Photo: Flickr CC: Official U.S. Navy Page]
Colonel S. Clinton Hinote is a military fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. He recently commanded the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea and served as the U.S. Forces Korea Area VI commander for more than 7,000 Air Force and Army combat ready and forward deployed personnel.