As a maritime nation and with more than 90 percent of global commerce traveling our world’s oceans and seas, the United States is facing a serious threat. This time, the threat is not coming from pirates, rogue nations or extremists — this threat to freedom of our seas is coming from our own Congress.
Those in the maritime community and industry know it is our nation’s sea services — the Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and U.S.-flagged Merchant Marine — that help ensure freedom of the seas. Many often take this for granted or may not even realize the critical role our sea services provide on a daily basis. Though the conflict in Afghanistan is drawing down, it is by no means finished.Likewise, the threats on the open seas and at critical chokepoints around the world remain ever-present. Our national command authority has committed our armed forces to a renewed focus and dominant presence in the Pacific — the world’s largest maritime domain. As our global commitments and threats have increased, our nation is facing unprecedented defense cuts through a process called sequestration that will devastate our ability to provide deterrence and power projection, upsetting the balance that makes would-be aggressors think twice before engaging with the United States.
The defense and maritime industries are being jeopardized from within. When the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction failed to find a savings agreement, the Budget Control Act of 2011 mandated $487 billion in security cuts over the next 10 years and included a small but devastating provision that will trigger $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts, effective January 2013. An estimated $492 billion of those cuts will come from security spending in the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, the National Nuclear Security Administration and other defense- and intelligence-related programs. The bottom line is, programs related to our nation’s defense will absorb half of the sequestration costs despite being just 19 percent of the national spending budget.
Not only is the sheer size of those cuts — about $54 billion a year, equal to two years’ worth of all Defense Department shipbuilding and maritime systems — a massive problem, but the implementation is leaving budget planners stumped. Nobody knows how those cuts will be applied or even the exact amount. The Office of Management and Budget has issued no guidance, and the Pentagon has stated that it is not making plans for sequestration. The law requires that the cuts be distributed uniformly at the program, project and activity level across every budget account. This directive only adds to the confusion.
Cuts will go into effect automatically in January, and so far, Congress has done nothing to stop them. With a recess session quickly approaching, followed by elections and then a lame-duck session, time is running out quickly. Many of those in the homeland security and defense industries are anticipating the worst. Because of long-lead contract requirements, industry already is preparing for layoffs. Those layoffs will have draconian effects. They will impact our already fragile economy and job market and in the long run will result in lost critical capabilities and expertise.
Only a legislative solution can stop this from going forward, but Congress is behaving as though this is a problem that can be handled later. So why, given the size and problematic implementation, was this piece of legislation allowed to pass in a Congress that normally recognizes the precarious world we live in and the need for a strong defense? Simple — it was never intended to happen. The prospect of such large cuts applied so indiscriminately with no regard to strategic priorities was intended to be so horrifying that the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction would be forced to compromise. That did not happen, and now Congress is left to deal with the mess it created for itself.
The Navy League of the United States is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to ensuring that our nation has strong and viable sea services. Our mission is to educate the American people and our elected officials of this need to further our nation’s safety, peace and prosperity. In the world we live in, budget cuts are inevitable, but those cuts need to be applied intelligently and judicially. We urge Congress to stop sequestration. How members can reach this bipartisan consensus is for them to determine. They must not reach compromise in the lame-duck session, but as soon as possible. Now is not the time to signal to our allies and to our foes that we are not willing — or that we lack the capability — to fulfill our global commitments now or in the future. Congress, do your job.
Phil Dunmire is national president of the Navy League of the United States.