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.”
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.
“It is little more than a dream to suggest that Washington can reclaim bipartisanship and a spirit of compromise in that brief period of time,” writes Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Pentagon official who analyzes defense issues at the American Enterprise Institute.
Winslow Wheeler, a former Senate staffer who advocates budget reform for the Center for Defense Information, said he sees “the lame-duck as a false hope for solving all the budget issues.”
“If the new Congress can be maneuvered into behaving itself in January, it will have many tasks, including doing whatever to the Pentagon part of the sequester that the economy and budget demand at that time,” he said.
“However, there is only one direction for the Pentagon budget in foreseeable economic and budgetary circumstances: It will go lower than the current and 2013 projected levels.
“I would say sequestration is highly likely, given the dysfunction in Congress that will continue after the elections,” Mr. Wheeler said.
A defense industry executive who maintains contact with congressional officials flatly predicted that “it’s going to happen.”
‘Not easy to prevent’
“Whether you have Obama or Mitt Romney as president, I think both of them are going to find it convenient to let sequestration happen,” the executive said. “And I don’t think Congress between now and an election year is going to reverse it. Then you’re going to have a lame-duck president or lame-duck Senate or both. It will be too polarized to act. So sequestration is going to happen.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a defense budget analyst at the Brookings Institution, said, “There is too much optimism that it will somehow be averted, perhaps in a lame-duck session, because the reality of it is too ugly to contemplate.”
He added: “I rate the prospects right at 50-50 and think that the fear of sequestration may have to get worse and more palpable before anybody will try to do anything. And even once they try, it’s not easy to prevent.”
A spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a House Armed Services Committee member who voted against the Budget Control Act because of its defense cuts, called averting the automatic spending reductions “a tall order.”
“We still need to make the best case possible and make every effort to insulate the defense budget from additional cuts that are sure to damage the military,” said spokesman Joe Kasper.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta in February presented his first round of budget cuts demanded by the Budget Control Act. He achieved spending targets largely by eliminating 92,000 Army and Marine Corps troops, retiring ships and aircraft, and delaying expensive new weapons systems such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
His 2013 base budget, minus war-fighting costs of $525 billion, is $5 billion less than 2012 spending and $45 billion less than what the Pentagon had planned to spend next year.
Because the budget act allows the president to exempt personnel, analysts believe a round of sequestration-dictated budget slashing would hit future weapons systems, not troops - who would be needed to fulfill operational contingencies in the Persian Gulf and the South Pacific.
Mr. Panetta has bemoaned the automatic defense spending cuts, saying they would produce a “hollowed out” military.