April 1, 2013  

Crisis and opportunity

At this writing, sequestration is in effect, thanks to a Congress that, in the words of Slate’s John Dickerson, couldn’t even design a sword of Damocles right.

The irony, of course, is that these quick cuts — made in professed service to deficit reduction — will make each notional unit of military capability more expensive. With personnel spending exempted by White House decision and acquisition rendered untouchable by contractual obligations, the ax is falling on operations and maintenance. There are certainly compelling reasons to reduce defense spending after a decade of steep increases, but as air wings are idled and ship availabilities deferred, we will see once again just how much more difficult it is to climb out of a hole than to walk down a gentler slope.

Well, never let a crisis go to waste, the saying goes, and so now is the time to break various sclerotic inefficiencies. Perhaps Congress may, at long last, allow more base closings. Perhaps lawmakers can be persuaded to accept personnel reforms, although the military cannot expect savings on that front soon. If substantial changes are made to military retirement or health care benefits, many or all of today’s serving troops, will in all likelihood, be grandfathered in.

And with both outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey on record as saying the cuts will leave the military unable to execute current national defense strategy, perhaps the United States can rethink said strategy. In particular, we ought to distinguish between truly vital interests — those worth deploying armed forces for — and those that are less so. As former Sen. Sam Nunn said recently, “We need to develop other tools of government to handle the ‘necessary’ and ‘desirable.’ The rest of government isn’t ready. The military is ready and organized, and so they get the call.”

Perhaps, with 9/11 more than a decade in the rearview mirror, we can think more clearly about what threats we really need our military to take on. Even the Transportation Security Administration recently decided to stop confiscating everyone’s penknives.

Bradley Peniston