Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Wednesday that $52 billion in cuts to the Pentagon budget for the 2014 fiscal year would seriously compromise U.S. capabilities in combat situations. The New York Times reports that Hagel wrote a letter to Congress expressing his strong opposition to the reductions.
“I strongly oppose cuts of that magnitude,” Hagel wrote. “The size, readiness and technological superiority of our military will be reduced, placing at much greater risk the country’s ability to meet our current national security commitments.”
The Pentagon is already looking for ways to trim $40 billion from the budget for fiscal year 2013, but the United States still spends more on the military than China, Russia, the U.K. and Japan combined. The impact on military capabilities may be overstated, as years of wasteful spending appear to have finally caught up to Pentagon.
Wasteful spending by the Defense Department
Are there upsides to these cuts? Proponents of cutbacks for the Department of Defense point to years of wasteful spending by the Pentagon that contributed to a national debt that has spiraled to more than $16 trillion.
Cuts of $52 billion will likely force the department to get its house in order and trim away the excess fat. Just how bad is the waste?
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that a 2003 study by the Defense Department inspector general found that the Pentagon was unable to account for more than $1 trillion spent during the Iraq war.
Additionally, a General Accounting Office report found defense inventory systems so unreliable that the U.S. Army lost track of 56 airplanes, 32 tanks and 36 Javelin missile command launch units. The $34 hammers and $600 toilet seat covers may provide ample fodder for talk shows and stand-up comedians, but the waste continues every day at taxpayers’ expense, diverting billions from programs that could help 50 million Americans who now live in poverty, according to the latest Census statistics.
Officially, unemployment remains at 7.6 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most Americans agree with cuts to military spending given the state of the debt and the economy today.
According to a poll released last year by the Program for Public Consultation, the Center for Public Integrity and the Stimson Center, 76 percent of Americans believe that the defense budget should be cut. Ninety percent of those in Democratic congressional districts and 67 percent in Republican districts were in favor of reductions.
Among those who support cuts, 80 of Republicans and 86 percent of Democrats believe that wasteful spending within the Department of Defense is the main reason that the reductions should occur.
Recently, a report by U.S. & World News Report found that the U.S. has likely wasted $34 million building a 64,000-square-foot facility in Afghanistan. The Regional Command-Southwest Command and Control Facility was supposed to be used by U.S. troops, but will likely be destroyed.
“I am deeply troubled that the military may have spent taxpayer funds on a construction project that should have been stopped,” wrote John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, in a recent letter to the Department of Defense.
The building was designed to house a U.S.-backed division of troops that commanders knew would never arrive. Sopko writes that the plans “inexplicably” went forward.
“Military officials explained this is an example of what is wrong with military construction in general — once a project is started, it is very difficult to stop,” he said.
There is a chance that the facility could be handed over to Afghan control once U.S. troops leave, but major renovations would have to be implemented in order make that happen.
There would have to be “major overhauls” of heating, ventilation and air conditioning, and conversion to the Afghan electrical configuration in order to make it possible for Afghans to use the building. There are no estimates for how much it would cost to make these changes.
“Certainly sequestration is forcing the Department of Defense and all federal agencies to take a hard look at how all of their programs to look where maybe they have duplicative services or where they can combine programs or reduce programs,” Bill Dougan, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, told Mint Press News.
Reductions in Department of Defense spending may help to cut out some of these excesses, but they will also have an immediate, negative impact on the 650,000 civilians who currently work for the military. Like any issue, there are human lives behind the dollars-and-cents calculations that take place on Capitol Hill.
Steep cuts to military spending will lead to fewer hours for most workers, and thousands of others will have their positions eliminated altogether.
Impact on civilian workers
The Washington Post reports that 650,000 rank-and-file Department of Defense workers will face 11 days of furlough between now and the end of the fiscal year in September. Most workers will have four-day work weeks, and a few thousand will have their jobs eliminated altogether.
“In terms of direct impacts to the civilian workforce as a result of sequestration I can tell you that I had a phone call a couple of days ago with the top civilian in the Department of the Army talking about fiscal year 2014 budget and even without sequestration, they are looking at having to RIF 2,000 positions in the Department of Army,” Dougan said, using a government workforce term for “reduction in force.”
Dougan leads The Federal Workers Alliance, a coalition of 20 unions representing more than 300,000 federal workers. In response to the furloughs, the union leadership is calling for protests this week, urging Americans to contact their members of Congress by phone, email and fax to in opposition to the cuts.
“If we kick sequestration in with that, on top of that you are looking at potentially many thousands of positions department-wide that we could potentially lose through RIFs and employees would be put out on the street,” Dougan said.
The lost jobs will likely create a ripple effect in the service economy, as well. With fewer work hours and jobs for Department of Defense workers, local service economies will suffer.
“The local economies where these people live and work will also suffer adverse consequences because they are going to have 20 percent less discretionary income once their paycheck gets shorted by one day, so there’s going to be less money that they are spending in their communities,” said Dougan.
The latest cuts appear to reflect what many elected officials were calling for back in 2010, during the preliminary discussions about military cuts. Many conservatives still oppose cuts to military spending, but a coalition of Tea Party Republicans applaud the decision, claiming that it is a necessary first step in the push to curb government spending.
Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky claims that cutting defense spending “has to be on the table” in budget discussions.
Across the aisle, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and 55 colleagues sent a letter to President Barack Obama’s Debt Commission urging the president to “subject military spending to the same rigorous scrutiny that non-military spending will receive. … We strongly believe that any deficit reduction package must contain significant cuts to the military budget.”
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