With the clock running out before sequestration starts Friday and triggers $85 billion in cuts to defense and domestic spending this year and $1.2 trillion over the next decade, perhaps a quick math and history lesson might be useful.
From a math perspective, sequestration is working on the wrong problem. That's not surprising considering it was based purely on politics as the White House proposed a congressional debt supercommittee to handle a soaring national debt, now well beyond $16 trillion. When they predictably failed, the Budget Control Act of 2011 was set in motion, giving us sequestration. Many thought the cuts would be so painful they would not happen. President Obama said as much during a presidential debate late last year.
Politics aside, however, the math is terrible. The cuts target only discretionary federal spending, now roughly 35 percent of the $3.8 trillion annual budget and shrinking fast. Meanwhile, mandatory spending tops 60 percent of the budget and is growing. Yet this category is off the table, including entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and unemployment payments. That formula will never work, and unless we restructure entitlement programs now, the country will go broke trying to pay for them.
While some downplay sequestration as political theater, noting this year's cuts are only 2.2 percent of the total budget, those cuts are disproportionately targeted at the military. Statistically lesser cuts will be felt across the rest of the federal government.
The new $500 billion in Pentagon cuts are beyond the Budget Control Act to slash defense by $487 billion over a decade, and beyond the $16 billion in efficiencies initiated by former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
Bracing for the $1 trillion shortfall with sequestration, the Pentagon is drastically scaling back -- and won't be able to adequately protect the nation for long.
According to congressional figures, the 100,000 ground troops already slated for downsizing would become 200,000. The Navy's 288 ships are barely enough for their global missions now -- and would shrink to 238. The Air Force is the smallest in its history, yet would trim about 25 percent more of its aircraft. Most of Defense's 800,000 civilians will see furloughs this year of 22 workdays without pay, or 20 percent of their salary over six months.
Operations and maintenance worldwide are being curtailed. The USS Harry S. Truman carrier strike group could not deploy to the Persian Gulf as scheduled this month. With all the recent talk invoking Abraham Lincoln, ironically, his namesake aircraft carrier won't undergo a scheduled complex overhaul as needed. Major maintenance on military aircraft will be halted for six months. Two-thirds of Air Force flight crews won't have the training hours required for safe operations.
Benefits in return for risking life and limb in combat zones and longer, more-frequent deployments are diminishing. Health care costs for retirees and family members are going up. Commissaries and exchanges for discounted groceries and goods are facing reductions and possible closures. Tuition assistance for college is shrinking. Families may face annual tuition payments for their children at Defense Department schools, including those overseas where there aren't other options. These changes threaten the all-volunteer force, as enlistment and retention will become difficult, as they were during the 1970s "hollow force" that was our military.
This brings us to history.
First, look at the Constitution. Of all federal spending, the top priority must remain for our common defense -- not just whatever is left after paying for 20th century-era entitlement programs.
Second, history is full of great powers that came and went: the Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, Persians, Caliphates, Mongols; and later European nation states -- Spain, France, the Netherlands and Britain, and finally, the Soviet Union. Most were brutally oppressive regimes -- not forces for freedom and democracy like our nation.
When their economic and military clout faded, others sought to fill the power vacuum. Britain's relative decline in the early 20th century brought on a challenge from Germany, leading to World War I. This then led to World War II as Adolf Hitler exploited the unjust Versailles peace treaty and weak-kneed European leaders, mobilizing a powerful nation to conquer Europe and North Africa, while his ally Japan seized East Asia and the South Pacific. Sixty million people died.
As America pulls back its military might, signaling that we're on the decline like Britain 100 years ago and leaving a power vacuum, which will be the next power to rise? We're already being tested by Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs, by Russia with its strategic bombers and submarines off our coasts, by China with its relentless cyberattacks and growing military -- not to mention al Qaeda and affiliates still committed to destroying America.
Mr. Obama can blame Congress for financial gridlock all he wants, but in the end, he's the commander in chief. It's on his watch that America's star has begun to fade. We must find solutions to preserve our economic and military future before it's too late. Sequestration is not the way.
J.D. Gordon is a retired Navy commander and former Pentagon spokesman who served in the office of the secretary of defense during the George W. Bush administration.