"Frankly, I am nervous," says Robert Hale, the Pentagon's comptroller. And with reason. A month and half into the new fiscal year, Congress can't seem to decide between what are three, wildly different scenarios for Hale's world in 2014. The House endorsed most of President Barack Obama's $527 billion request for the Defense Department in July. Last month's stopgap CR went back to $496 billion. And DOD will drop by another $21 billion in mid-January if lawmakers do nothing to stop sequestration.
It hasn't generated much attention from the political world in recent weeks, but Pentagon leaders are speaking up with increasing alarm about a congressional policy that's undermining the Defense Department -- by design.
In an underappreciated speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Global Security Forum last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel raised the prospect of "tiered readiness" -- because of the sequestration budget cuts, the U.S. military will have no choice but to tolerate having some units that are ready for immediate deployment in the event of a crisis, and some units that aren't.
Two days later, military service chiefs told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the policy known as the "sequester" is a real threat to the nation's military and national security needs. Asked after the hearing whether lawmakers outside the Armed Services Committee are listening to these concerns, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said, "I don't think so."
Soon after, Hagel told the New York Times that pressures from the sequestration cuts is so severe that the Pentagon is having to rethink its policy of allotting roughly equal resources to the service branches.
It's not just Hagel and the service chiefs, either.
Hale went on to tell Politico that because of the sequester, the Pentagon is facing an "extraordinary situation" and widespread fiscal uncertainty.
"If we go to full sequestration, we will see some continued degradation of readiness," he added in the interview. "The Air Force won't be able to recover. They will still have to stop flying at some units. The Army will still not be sending units through the Combat Training Center.... The Navy may see some degradation in readiness."
Now, at this point you might be thinking about how self-serving it is for Defense leaders to complain about Defense cuts. Indeed, this might even seem predictable at a certain level -- every federal agency is going to raise alarms about spending cuts affecting their departments because they want additional resources from lawmakers.
But given the circumstances, I think it's a mistake to simply dismiss the Pentagon's concerns as routine bureaucratic complaints. Defense leaders have endorsed some spending cuts, including those outlined in the White House budget, but the sequester is a different monster entirely. It was designed to hurt the military on purpose in order to create an incentive for congressional Republicans to compromise -- and after GOP leaders balked at any kind of budget deal, the policy was implemented and did exactly what it was intended to do.
Republicans in Congress still have the ability to end this stupid policy that's hurting the country on purpose, but in recent months, many GOP lawmakers have said they prefer the lower spending levels -- regardless of consequences -- because they're lower spending levels.
In other words, Pentagon leaders are raising their voices, but many on Capitol Hill still haven't heard them.