Budget gridlock imperils national defense

Arms systems cuts look likely

Defense analysts and Capitol Hill insiders are anticipating that automatic federal budget cuts will occur Jan. 1 and force the armed forces to scrap plans for new weapons systems.

Washington’s polarized political landscape shows no signs of a compromise on taxes and spending that would head off the 2011 Budget Control Act’s requirement for across-the-board cuts to begin in nine months.

For the Pentagon, this would mean another 10-year, $500 billion spending cut in addition to the already budgeted $487 billion reduction. In the first year of the automatic spending reductions, the military would need to slash an additional $50 billion from its budget, likely ending a new long-range bomber and a new Army tactical vehicle, and shrinking the Navy’s fleet of 11 aircraft carriers.

“I didn’t use to think this way,” said Daniel Goure, a longtime defense analyst at the pro-business Lexington Institute think tank. “But unless one side or the other sweeps the table in November, I think sequestration will happen.”

Sequestration is the formal name for the automatic spending cuts.

Mr. Goure has watched Republicans and Democrats dig in.

“There is intransigence of both parties to the elements of any deal,” he said. “It’s all budget reductions on one side and mostly tax increases on the other.

“But also, it turns out tragically the United States Congress doesn’t care as much for national defense as was thought when the [budget act] was struck. The assumption was neither side would dare risk national security. Turns out they would.”

Lame-duck hopes

Said a House Republican staffer involved in defense issues: “The president is the big obstacle. The president said a deal is a deal. Sen. Harry Reid [Nevada Democrat and majority leader] said a deal is a deal. We have to be honest with ourselves and realistic. It is near impossible to head off sequestration before the end of the year.”

The staffer said the first sign of prolonged deadlock was the so-called supercommittee, the bipartisan group of senators and representatives that failed to reach a budget deal and was disbanded in November.

Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Budget Committee, presented a 2013 budget last week that would, he said, head off automatic cuts.

But Senate Democrats dismissed the plan because it would cut domestic spending below figures mandated by the Budget Control Act.

A lingering hope has been that, after November’s elections, a lame-duck Congress would have the political freedom to reach a compromise.

Analysts say don’t count on it.

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