Analysis: Skeptics doubt defense scare in Hampton Roads
Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Some analysts don't buy the horror stories about looming defense cuts. Their message to the Hampton Roads military community goes something like this:
We'll concede that regions like southeastern Virginia will feel the pain more than other places. And this process of sequestration, which lops off money across the board, is not a smart way to go about reducing the nation's defense budget.
But if you step away from Naval Station Norfolk or Langley Air Force base and look at the issue from a wider view, the overall defense budget will not be decimated. The scary tales about America's military suddenly being vulnerable just don't ring true.
Those nuclear-powered aircraft carriers home-ported in Norfolk? You've got more like them on the West Coast, and no other nation has even one. The F-22 Raptors that streak across the Peninsula skies are part of an Air Force that will remain the envy of other countries whether the cuts happen or not.
Yes, there will be less money, and yes, the military will have to work harder with fewer resources. But size matters less than capability.
"There's a reason why we don't need huge armadas to launch invasions," said Chris Hellman, a defense analyst with the National Priorities Project, a non-profit research group dedicated to budget transparency. "We can do things much more efficiently given the benefits of 50 years of technology."
In other words, cutting the defense budget is not the end of the world.
To be clear, military leaders at the Pentagon paint a much different picture. They have warned in stark terms of increased danger and reduced strength if sequestration goes into effect. Nor will this view likely gain much hold in Hampton Roads, where 45 percent of the economy is tied to military and defense-related businesses, where bumper stickers proudly proclaim the love of jet noise and the silhouettes of aircraft carriers are as much a part of the landscape as office buildings and ocean sunsets.
But skeptics looking at the overall budget say the numbers tell a different story.
"At the national level, the cuts will balance out and there might even be a slight benefit," said William Hartung, a defense analyst for the Center for International Policy, which describes its mission as stressing cooperation, demilitarization and human rights. "It's just unequally distributed."
Sequestration refers to across-the-board spending cuts that will begin in January for both defense and non-defense spending and continue for the next 10 years – unless Congress votes to do something else.
According to some estimates, the cuts would shed about $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years.
Much attention has focused on the abrupt drop between this year and next year, when the cuts would first kick in. A handout from the House Armed Services Committee says sequestration would have a "catastrophic impact," resulting in, among other things, the smallest Navy since 1915. A PolitiFact analysis from January 2012 examined a similar claim from Mitt Romney in a GOP presidential debate.
They said the numbers are about right.
The Navy had 245 ships in 1916 and it had 283 in 2009 – so roughly in the neighborhood. The committee's estimate says sequestration would reduce the Navy to 230 ships. But does size matter that much?
When Hellman hears these stories, he refers to a pair of speeches made by then Defense Secretary Robert Gates in May 2010 about the coming period of fiscal austerity. Besides pointing out America's huge advantage in aircraft carriers, he pointed to the lopsided edge the U.S. holds in large-deck amphibious ships, nuclear-powered attack and cruise missile submarines, and craft equipped with Aegis missile systems that have more firepower than multiple navies combined.
"Our qualitative dominance," Hellman said, "is unrivaled."
How about looking at spending? Again, the cuts don't conjure up visions of a return to pre-World War I.
Under sequestration, defense spending would fall to fiscal year 2007 levels, according to a 2011 analysis by Todd Harrison at for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments who has testified in Congress. The Center is a think tank specializing in defense policy, force planning and military budgets.
War funding is exempt from sequestration, and Harrison said cuts under sequestration would be similar to previous drawdowns. The base defense budget would fall 14 percent from its fiscal year 2010 to 2013.
If troops leave Afghanistan as planned, total reduction in defense spending would be about 31 percent, which is in line with reductions following the Korean War and Vietnam War.
Harrison adds this proviso: The growth in defense funding over the past decade did not result in a buildup of forces. The size of the military is essentially the same today as when the buildup started, so "cutting end strength to reduce the budget is not as practical an option as it was in previous downturns."
News accounts and politicians say sequestration will mean cuts of $1.2 trillion over 10 years, spread equally between defense and non-defense. An analysis last week by ProPublica put that in a different context.
The military will not be cut by $600 billion, but by $492 billion, writes Justin Elliott. The balance of the savings comes from interest payments that the government would avoid making.
The same House Armed Services Committee handout that warns of "disastrous consequences" correctly states the $492 billion. For context, it adds the context that the cuts are on top of $487 billion already approved.
Then there is the prospect of a 10-year program proceeding unimpeded in a place like Washington. Congress changes every two years, the U.S. may get a new president in November, and global military threats are constantly evolving, forcing leaders to rethink strategy and budgets. Hellman isn't buying the idea of the current debate heading in a straight line for the next decade.
"People like to tell stories that we can understand in black and white," he said. "Nothing is that simple. It's a much more nuanced issue."