Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced last week the main outlines of the Pentagon’s 2013 budget that will implement the $487 billion reduction in spending eventuated by spending limits in the law passed by Congress last summer. Secretary Panetta’s budget represents a sensible set of choices in an environment of budget constraint likely to be of extended duration. Unfortunately, the budget does not constitute a program that carries out the law: DOD has produced a budget that cannot be implemented should any reductions beyond the 2013 topline occur. As Secretary Panetta himself has said, not only the budget choices, but the entire strategy collapses with any further cuts.
Panetta essentially flipped his predecessor’s priorities, accepting risk in the near-term to preserve procurement of systems considered central to long-term risk management (i.e., preserving our technological and innovation edge as China rises). The programmatic choices consist of three main elements: decreasing the size of the force, improving long-range strike capabilities and relying on them to carry the burden of combat, and shifting to special operations the mission of training friendly forces.
However, DOD’s plans contain several elements unlikely to survive contact with reality. First, as the Pentagon not only admits but trumpets, this strategic guidance is unexecutable if further defense cuts occur. On what possible basis does Secretary Panetta believe the law outlining sequestration cuts of an additional $600-800 billion to national security will not be enacted? Congress passed the Budget Control Act by large margins (269-161 in the House, 74-26 in the Senate). The Select Committee proved incapable of reaching a deal that would prevent sequestration. The president has threatened to veto any changes to the distribution of sequestration cuts in the existing law. Secretary Panetta himself has supported the president’s veto threat. Where is the basis for believing the law will not come into effect?