If sequester economics continues on Capitol Hill, we won’t be ready next time there’s a war.

 

While Jay Z and Jill Abramson were dominating the nation’s news coverage this week, members of Congress were quietly degrading — to little notice — the nation’s ability to fight a war. They weren’t doing it on purpose, of course, but at the rate they’re going, if there is ever another major conflict, America’s military forces might not be ready.

By forcing the Department of Defense to maintain a larger force and, above all, more pet weapons systems than its budget can support, Congress is creating a military that is increasingly hollow, unfocused and unable to respond to the very real dangers facing the United States from Europe to East Asia.

How did this happen? Sequestration, of course. We’ve all been taught in school that “you can’t get something for nothing,” but apparently Congress was absent that day. In its recent markup of next year’s National Defense Authorization Act, DoD’s annual funding bill, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) directed the military to keep the A-10 tank killer aircraft, U-2 spy plane and more than a dozen cruisers and amphibious ships that the Pentagon says it can’t afford. The HASC also wants to continue buying Abrams tanks and amphibious assault ships DoD didn’t ask for. And the committee blocked the Pentagon’s attempts to save money and reduce waste by reforming military compensation and closing excess bases and infrastructure. This week the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) begins its own markup of the NDAA. Given the opposition senators already expressed to any of the Pentagon’s proposed cost-cutting moves, it is likely the resulting legislation will drive up defense costs over the coming years without giving the military any more money.

The Pentagon, of course, does not want to make these cuts—it simply has no better alternative given the budget constraints Congress established in the 2013 Bipartisan Budget Act and 2011 Budget Control Act. Congress is trying to have it both ways by cutting defense spending and expecting the Defense Department to continue with business as usual. But the savings will have to come from somewhere.

Where? The Pentagon’s budget consists of four big categories of spending: compensation, procurement, research and development and readiness. For the coming year, the Pentagon assumed compensation costs would decline due to a combination of a smaller Army and Marine Corps and compensation reforms such as slower growth in housing allowances and higher fees for retiree medical care. These modest reductions in the rate of increase in compensation make sense. The cost per active duty service member grew 76 percent in real terms from 1998 to 2014. Without compensation reform, this growth will continue unabated and force cuts elsewhere in the budget.

In acquisitions, the Pentagon proposed making some strategic choices. It would slow down purchases of some weapons to save money and stop buying other systems such as M-1 Abrams battle tanks and San Antonio-class amphibious assault ships. These weapon systems are not urgently needed for the kinds of operations the military expects to do in the near future and therefore can wait until more funding is available. The HASC reversed several of these reductions, though, and under its plan procurement and research and development will together get more money next year than DoD proposed.

There’s only one other place in the budget to go for the money to pay for more compensation and more acquisition: “readiness.” Readiness funding pays for the training, maintenance, parts and supplies that enable U.S. forces to do everything from nuclear deterrence to disaster response. But readiness is difficult to defend, in part because it isn’t measured very well. In military acquisitions, people know exactly how many dollars go in and how many weapons come out. With military readiness, however, we know how much money goes to training, maintenance, and so on, but we do not have good measures of the output—the ability of forces to perform in real-world operations. As a result, it is hard to set a “red line” for readiness funding or even know the impact of cutting it.

The Pentagon had planned to improve readiness starting next year by closing excess facilities, retiring legacy weapons systems (such as the A-10, U-2 and KC-10 tanker) and “mothballing” some cruisers and amphibious ships. This would have allowed DoD to spread its readiness dollars among a smaller number of bases, ships and squadrons. The force would be smaller, but more ready. When budgets are tight, however, it is easier for Congress to protect things that are more visible and straightforward to quantify: buildings and runways, ships and airplanes, tanks and brigade combat teams.

And that’s exactly what happened. So now, to pay for more compensation and acquisition, DoD will have to cut readiness funding and spread those dollars across a larger force. That means next year there will be less flying, less steaming, less training and fewer spare parts and supplies. This is what we mean by “hollowing out.”

This isn’t strategically smart, and it effectively takes Congress out of the decision-making process on how to maintain readiness. The military will be forced to cut readiness based on what is practical and expedient, rather than being able to prioritize capabilities that are most important for the world we’re in. For example, the Navy will have to pay for nuclear maintenance on its carriers and submarines and therefore be compelled to forego maintenance on destroyers that are our front-line forces in the Black Sea, Baltic and East China Sea. The Army will have to pay for the drawdown in Afghanistan, and therefore won’t be able to ramp up the training and preparation of troops that will rotationally deploy to support U.S. allies and partners in Europe and Asia.

There are innovative ways to keep equipment for later while saving money today. The Navy, for instance, proposed mothballing 12 ships and then upgrading and returning them to the fleet at a rate of one or two per year over the next decade. The result would save almost $1 billion per year in operating costs and extend the lives of the ships into the late 2030s. But the HASC wants to stall this plan by forcing DoD to wait for a General Accounting Office report due in mid-2015—too late to implement the idea until 2016 at the earliest.

HASC chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) tried to apply the “mothball” approach instead as a compromise on the A-10 tank killer aircraft. Rather than allowing the Air Force to retire its aging aircraft, he proposed putting them in long-term storage. His committee shot down the proposal and directed the Pentagon to keep them in service. In the Senate, John McCain, Kelly Ayotte and others already made clear they don’t support retiring the A-10.

Congress, when it passed sequestration in 2011, asked the Pentagon to be more strategic, efficient and innovative. That is what DoD is trying to do. If lawmakers continue to reject DoD’s efforts to reshape and reform the military, they are effectively forcing the military to be less strategic, less efficient and less innovative. Defense cuts require hard choices, but if the Senate follows the House’s lead, we could end up with a paper tiger military that looks good on the surface but isn’t prepared to respond in a security environment that becomes more uncertain every day.