Inside the Pentagon – 10/10/2013

‘Reading the tea leaves’

Pentagon leaders are growing resigned to the prospect that sequestration cuts will remain in effect, directing that spending rates be adjusted for fiscal year 2014 and, possibly, beyond, according to defense sources and senior officials.

A sense of inevitability set in over the summer as Pentagon officials concluded the Strategic Choices and Management Review and took to Capitol Hill to once again illustrate the consequences of a $500 billion cut over 10 years. “I think there just came a reading of the tea leaves that, like it or not, no one on the Hill seemed to be making a move to overturn sequestration,” said a Defense Department official. “We did the SCMR work, briefed Hill leadership and others and nothing seemed to happen even though we painted a pretty dire picture of the world.”

That sentiment dovetails with what military leaders have said publicly in recent weeks. One speech, delivered on September 12 by Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. James Winnefeld, is seen by some in the Pentagon as the clearest expression of what’s to come.
While the admiral’s prediction of enduring financial stress was not new, he outlined DOD’s predicament with a sense of acceptance not previously seen. “We don’t have the luxury of muttering what a shame it is and blaming the other side,” Winnefeld said.

“The harsh reality is that today we’re in a security environment in which the ends, the ways and the means are all shifting under our feet simultaneously,” he said. “And if we don’t understand this reality, or combination of realities, or deny it, hoping it will disappear, or if we allow our ends, ways and means to get out of balance, then our strategy will be bankrupt and we will fail our great nation.”

On the eve of the government shutdown, Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale noted how DOD’s view on sequestration had evolved. A year ago, defense leaders were tireless in denouncing the cuts, hoping for a last-minute deal in Congress. But on September 27, Hale said, “I think this time we will start operating at a somewhat lower level than . . . the president’s request.”

According to defense sources, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter approved the plan that says the spending limits outlined in the 2011 Budge Control Act should be assumed. However, whether a formal decision document to that effect was issued, and by whom, is unclear.

“While the comptroller stands by his [September 27] statement, it would be inappropriate to speculate further on what guidance will be issued when we get an CR/appropriation, as it is unknown at this time what type of appropriation or CR will end up being passed,” Hale’s spokesman, Cmdr. Bill Urban, said in a statement for this article.

The Quadrennial Defense Review is emerging as the key vehicle for reconciling new spending plans with the Pentagon’s ambitions, sources say. In the end, the review could culminate in a substantial update to the Obama administration’s January 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance.

QDR officials have delivered short, classified briefings to the services that indicate the magnitude of changes afoot, sources said. Already leery of plans to shrink the Army, some service officials have viewed those ideas with suspicion because broader strategic implications were not immediately evident from the brief documents, a service source said.

Speaking before an Army audience in his mid-September speech, Winnefeld hinted that the ground service would undergo the greatest transformation among the services. Indirectly, he also took the Army’s establishment of retired leaders and trade groups to task for parochialism in their efforts to preserve end strength above all else.

“How big did [Army Chief of Staff Gen.] Ray Odernio keep the Army? It’s the easiest and most obvious thing to measure, and we know that every service chief kind of looks over his shoulder at these important constituencies,” Winnefeld said. Closing his speech, hosted by the Association of the United States Army, he implored Army backers to “give the leaders you have in the Army the intellectual space and backing they need to make the tough decisions they have to make.”

The belief that America can afford a smaller Army stems from the projection that engaging in another counterinsurgency operation is not in the national interest and, more broadly, that a major war with another country is unlikely.

One of the options circulated recently by QDR officials hints at the second-order effects that assumption would have on the other services: a lower priority for Marine Corps amphibious assault capabilities and Air Force tactical fighters like the Joint Strike Fighter, for example, according to the service source. Another vignette envisions even greater reliance on special operations forces than the post-9/11 buildup has already spawned, the source added.

Absent an agreement in Congress about reducing the federal debt, sequestration cuts will become mandatory in January. DOD’s proactive stance on implementing the cuts is leading DOD officials engaged in the ongoing program budget review to look for programs whose ends could be brought about earlier than originally envisioned, according to the DOD official.

– Sebastian Sprenger

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