Views from the Field: Colonels and Commanders Reflect on Military Readiness under Sequestration

On November 8, the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence convened a public event on the defense budget in the context of fiscal austerity and sequestration.  After beginning with a thank you to the nation’s veterans as Veterans Day weekend began (as well as a happy birthday to the Marine Corps), we moved directly to a panel discussion with our visiting fellows from each of the military services.  It was followed by another panel with two distinguished scholars and practitioners in the field, Jack Mayer of Booz-Allen-Hamilton and Jay DeFrank of Pratt and Whitney.

The military fellows from the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard described their observations on how budget cuts including the 2013 sequester that began on March 1 had affected their services.  Two of the fellows, Col. Johnnie Johnson of the Army and Col. Ken Ekman of the Air Force, had been on major bases until this past summer in important leadership roles.  Three others, Cmdr. Tom King of the Coast Guard, Cmdr. Robert DeBuse of the Navy, and Lt. Col. Aaron Marx of the Marine Corps, had important planning positions that gave them vantage points from which to observe the effects of the budgetary reductions.

Much of the purpose of convening such a panel was to give a more granular sense of what is happening to individual fielded units as a result of this period of austerity and unusual turbulence in the defense budget.  Beyond the effects of budgetary reductions, and now sequestration, the current period is also characterized by a habit of using continuing resolutions rather than normal annual appropriations bills to fund the military (and the rest of the government).  This deprives the military of new authority to start, stop, or modify various programs and activities. 

The joint chiefs of staff criticized the possibility of sequestration throughout 2012 and into 2013, as part of a concerted effort by the Obama administration to stave off those cuts.  In the end, while the chiefs spoke accurately, their combined message was seen by many as unconvincing.  They had warned of severe repercussions from sequestration, whereas to date at least those effects appear to be tolerable.  Our thinking for this event was that a more granular, field-level view of the effects of this new fiscal environment might therefore provide a useful complement to the higher-level aggregate views of the leaders of the various military services, to explain what is in fact really happening under the sequester and related realities.

And our fellows did not disappoint.  Ken Ekman, who had been vice commander at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico through the first half of calendar year 2013, noted that sequestration had not affected two top priorities at the base:  training of pilots for remotely piloted aircraft, and F-22 fighter operations.  However, base maintenance had dropped to next to nothing in many areas such as road repair and building repair—tolerable in the short term, perhaps, but not sustainable.  And many combat aircraft at other bases had spent the summer grounded.

Johnnie Johnson, who had commanded the 3rd brigade combat team of the 3rd infantry division, noted that for most units like his, the Army had simply stopped doing large-unit maneuver training and anything else that involved sustained use of large numbers of vehicles.  This had not precluded ongoing training in skills like basic marksmanship or small-unit maneuver, but it left battalions and brigades unable to train as full teams.  It also left many younger recruits who had not been in the Army long enough to have experienced such activities in earlier years of their careers simply unfamiliar with training for the large-unit skills they would be expected to master before combat.

Aaron Marx, a Marine Corps pilot, offered perspectives on flying helicopters.  He noted that normally the Marine Corps believes that upwards of 20 hours a month are required to establish and maintain proficiency.  Fly 10 hours or less a month and, as he put it, “I feel like a stranger in my own aircraft.”  Levels around 15 hours a month, as might be typical under some approaches to sequestration, are in a grey area—perhaps adequate for an experienced pilot to keep many of his or her skills (when combined with time in simulators), probably not adequate for young pilots to learn the trade properly and safely.

Tom King noted that most Coast Guard activities were funded with about 25 percent fewer operating dollars in large parts of 2013.  Figures of merit in terms of drugs seized, environmental patrols maintained, and other Coast Guard missions successfully accomplished generally declined by commensurate amounts relative to 2012 levels.

Robert DeBuse underscored that ship maintenance was often deferred due to sequestration.  In the short term, this can mean greater risk of small and unexpected problems.  Over time, if sustained, it implies shorter lifetimes for ships, often measured in terms of several years. 

Jack Mayer and Jay DeFrank offered trenchant insights as well.  Mayer suggested that the military budget of the 2000 era, once scaled up, might suggest that current levels should be adequate.  But he also pointed to the enormous growth in compensation costs per uniformed person, among other trends that if not countered will preclude efficient operations by the Department of Defense even if sequestration is averted.  DeFrank underscored that sequestration’s negative effects will rapidly accumulate with time, and that we should not be lulled into a false sense of complacency by the fact that the military services and the defense industrial base have found ways to manage the budgetary downswings and sequestration so far.

It was an event with no bottom lines about what level of defense spending will be adequate for the United States in the future, but with ample warnings about the problems resulting from our unusual and undisciplined (my words, not theirs!) budgeting approaches of recent years.