April 01, 2013
Credit: Northrop Grumman
If last year's budget was tough on the U.S. defense establishment, the coming year is likely to bring more of the same.
The budget for fiscal 2013 was only recently solidified by Congress. The president's budget request is two months behind schedule, while lawmakers are nowhere near an agreement on how to reconcile their own big-picture spending issues. That leaves the Pentagon stuck with a $46 billion bill this year and a similar cut next year unless Congress finds a way to reconcile its long-standing differences over taxes and entitlements. Early reports indicate that soon-to-be presented budget plans for fiscal 2014 will not encompass those reductions.
The situation has defense analysts in Washington in agreement on a couple of things: The military is in the midst of a cyclical downturn in defense spending; and they are skeptical about the Pentagon's ability to navigate it.
For starters, budget cuts driven either by the penalty known as sequestration or a possible agreement to avert it are already prompting a review of the president's 2012 shift in strategy that saw the U.S. military pivoting from Europe to Asia.
That review is due at the end of May, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is already adjusting the nation's expectations. “We'll need to relook at our assumptions, and we'll need to adjust our ambitions to match our abilities,” Dempsey said during a recent speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “And that means doing less, but not doing less well.”
That overview—the “Strategic Choices and Management Review”—is supposed to inform next year's Quadrennial Defense Review and the fiscal 2015 budget, says Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
But that review, if it contradicts what is released in the administration's budget request to Congress, expected in April, might render that very request obsolete, Harrison says. It will be based on the 2012 strategy, but it is not likely to align with the new strategic choices stance.
On top of that, the fiscal 2014 request for defense may be $50 billion more than spending levels prescribed by the law that put sequestration into play. “Which means it is arguably irrelevant anyway unless budget caps are raised,” Harrison says.