Defense forum: Steep cuts likely, regardless of fiscal cliff

December 5, 2012

 The Defense Department faces steep cuts in the next decade regardless of whether the government goes off the fiscal cliff, speakers at a defense forum  in Washington said Wednesday.

The main impact of automatic cuts that would be triggered by sequestration is that the cuts would be made more quickly and in a more indiscriminate fashion, several said.

“The danger of deep cuts of sequestration is it forces choices before we’re able to make them in an informed way,” William Lynn, who served as deputy secretary of defense from 2009 to 2011 under Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, told the defense forum on the fiscal cliff held by the U.S. Naval Institute.

In the event of sequestration, the Pentagon will face an additional $500 billion in cuts over the next decade, atop the $487 billion already approved. If a deal is reached avoiding the fiscal cliff, according to analysts, the additional cuts will be less severe but could still amount to several hundred billion dollars over the next 10 years.

“We are in a drawdown, not particularly because of the fiscal cliff,” but because of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, said Gordon Adams, who oversaw national security and foreign policy budgets for the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration. He said the cuts faced by the military are similar to those made in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War, as well as earlier retrenchments after the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

“Procurement will face the deepest cuts, people next,” Adams said.

The civilian defense workforce of  approximately 700,000 could shrink to between 500,000 and 600,000, Adams estimated.

The personnel cuts will largely be made by attrition, “but if we go over the cliff, it could be faster,” said Adams.

Sequestration would likely mean a quick 15 percent cut in procurement with serious ramifications for the defense industry, said Bobby Sturgell, senior vice president of Washington operations for Rockwell Collins.  “Within two to three months — whether it’s a ramp or a cliff, your choice of words, but job cuts are coming,” he said.

The Pentagon’s cuts to operations and maintenance will be somewhat less steep, while research and development will likely see the shallowest cuts, as was the case in earlier drawdowns, several speakers said.

 “The great hope of every incoming defense secretary is to somehow find savings in management and overhead [which can be shifted] to the pointy end of the spear,” Lynn said. “The problem is it’s never happened.”

“There aren’t that many places to get those game-changing savings,” he added.

Steve Vogel is a reporter for the national staff of The Washington Post who covers the federal government and frequently writes about the military and veterans.
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