Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta warned Monday that if the bipartisan debt “supercommittee” fails and an across-the-board spending cut is enacted, the result will be “devastating” for the Pentagon, creating a “substantial risk” that the country’s defense needs might not be met.
“Unfortunately, while large cuts are being imposed, the threats to national security would not be reduced,” Panetta wrote in a letter to Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), two of the GOP’s most prominent voices on defense issues. “As a result, we would have to formulate a new security strategy that accepted substantial risk of not meeting our defense needs.”
“A sequestration budget is not one that I could recommend,” he added, referring to the formal name of the across-the-board cut that would take effect in January 2013 if the supercommittee fails to reach a deal by Thanksgiving.
In the letter, which Panetta sent in response to a request this month by McCain and Graham, the Pentagon chief and former Democratic congressman from California detailed the ways in which national security might be affected by a potential across-the-board cut.
The proposed cut was included in August’s debt-ceiling legislation as a means of spurring the bipartisan debt panel to reach a deal, but in recent months defense hawks such as McCain, Graham and Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) have pledged to work to undo the cut if the supercommittee fails. Defense spending is already on track to be cut by $450 billion through the debt-ceiling deal.
A supercommittee failure would mean the Pentagon budget would be cut by a total of $1 trillion over the next decade compared with President Obama’s fiscal 2012 plan — a “huge” cut that would amount to a 23 percent reduction in the defense budget, resulting in furloughs and layoffs of “many” civilians and a reduction in the size of the military, Panetta wrote.
“Facing such large reductions, we would have to reduce the size of the military sharply,” he wrote. “Rough estimates suggest after ten years of these cuts, we would have the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest Air Force in its history.”
The across-the-board cut would also “render most of our ship and construction projects unexecutable — you cannot buy three quarters of a ship or a building and seriously damage other modernization efforts,” Panetta wrote.
Funding for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would not be affected by the cut, but the war efforts “would be adversely affected by the severe disruption in the base budgets,” according to Panetta.
“Contracting personnel would be cut, resulting in delays in the contracts and the contract oversight that support the war,” he wrote. “Payroll personnel would be cut, resulting in late payments to wartime vendors, and legal and policy support would be disrupted.”
In a statement responding to Panetta’s letter, McCain and Graham argued that the across-the-board cut to defense spending “would set off a swift decline of the United States as the world’s leading military power.”
“We are staunchly opposed to this draconian action,” the senators said. “This is not an outcome that we can live with, and it is certainly not one that we should impose on ourselves. The sequester is a threat to the national security interests of the United States, and it should not be allowed to occur.”
McKeon’s House Armed Services Committee has held several hearings examining the potential effects of the Pentagon cuts, with one economist testifying last month that as many as 1 million jobs could be at stake.
The letter from Panetta could increase pressure on the 12 supercommittee members to reach a deal ahead of their Nov. 23 deadline. Much of that pressure, however, will depend on whether lawmakers view the potential defense cuts as real — or whether they believe that it’s within Congress’s power to undo them. President Obama told the co-chairs of the supercommittee, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), last week that he will oppose any efforts to undo the cuts.
Panetta’s full letter to the senators is below.
November 14, 2011
The Honorable John McCain
Committee on Armed Services
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
Dear Senator McCain:
I am responding to your recent letter asking for more details about the effects sequestration would have on the Department of Defense (DoD). Like you, I believe it is essential that the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (JSCDR) meet its target and avoid sequestration. I also strongly urge the JSCDR meet its target while following the President’s proposals, including his recommendation not to impose further reductions in the caps on discretionary funding.
If the JSCDR fails to meet its targets and sequestration is triggered, DoD would face huge cuts in its budgets. Compared with the President’s budget plan for FY 2012, we are already planning on budget reductions over the next ten years of more than $450 billion. These cuts are difficult and will require us to take some risks, but they are manageable. If the maximum sequestration is triggered, the total cut will rise to about $1 trillion compared with the FY 2012 plan.
The impacts of these cuts would be devastating for the Department. The enclosure outlines some of the potential effects, which are summarized below.
In FY 2013, the reduction in defense spending under maximum sequestration would amount to 23 percent if the President exercised his authority to exempt military personnel. A cut of this magnitude would be devastating in itself, but it gets worse. Under current law, that 23 percent reduction would have to be applied equally to each major investment and construction program. Such a large cut, applied in this indiscriminate manner, would render most of our ship and construction projects unexecutable — you cannot buy three quarters of a ship or a building and seriously damage other modernization efforts. We would also be forced to separate many of our civilian personnel involuntarily and, because the reduction would be imposed so quickly, we would almost certainly have to furlough civilians in order to meet the target. These changes would break faith with those who maintain our military and seriously damage readiness.
The situation does not get better beyond FY 2013. In this period, cuts to the DoD budget under maximum sequestration would equal about $100 billion a year compared with the FY 2012 plan. Facing such large reductions, we would have to reduce the size of the military sharply. Rough estimates suggest after ten years of these cuts, we would have the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest Air Force in its history.
We would also be forced to terminate most large procurement programs in order to accommodate modernization reductions that are likely to be required.
While wartime funding in the Overseas Contingency Operations accounts is not directly affected by the sequester, war efforts would be adversely affected by the severe disruption in the base budgets. Contracting personnel would be cut, resulting in delays in the contracts and the contract oversight that support the war. Payroll personnel would be cut, resulting in late payments to wartime vendors, and legal and policy support would be disrupted.
Unfortunately, while large cuts are being imposed, the threats to national security would not be reduced. As a result, we would have to formulate a new security strategy that accepted substantial risk of not meeting our defense needs. A sequestration budget is not one that I could recommend.
I ask that you join with all members of Congress to meet the critical need for deficit reduction without resorting either to sequestration or to further cuts in the caps on discretionary funding. An identical letter has been sent to Senator Graham.
Secretary of Defense