Petar Petrov/AP

Defense spending panel says sequestration wouldn't be disastrous

Pentagon might become ‘a health care company’ if personnel costs aren’t kept in check, expert at the Center for American Progress cautions.

Automatically triggered budget cuts are unlikely to occur and would not be catastrophic to the Defense Department anyway, experts said Wednesday, adding that personnel expenses will prove the greatest burden on the agency’s budget in coming years.

The three-person panel at an event hosted by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning public policy research group, discussed how to approach Defense spending to foster a more sustainable 21st century military.

The panelists felt that automatically triggered across-the-board Defense budget cuts -- scheduled to begin in 2013 and estimated to result in an additional $600 billion in spending reduction over the next 10 years -- would likely be averted, though none of them expected lawmakers to strike a deal before the presidential election in November. “Let’s not overreact, because a lot of times if you overreact it can become a self-fulfilling prophesy,” CAP Senior Fellow Lawrence Korb said, explaining that sequestration would, at most, only reduce Defense spending to 2007 levels.

Additionally, Korb said, any reduction in Defense’s allocation will result in smarter budgeting. “It’s good it’s going down, because it’s going to force you to make tough decisions,” the former assistant secretary of Defense under President Reagan said.

Those tough decisions should include personnel cuts, the panelists agreed, particularly in the category of ground troops.

Michael Breen, vice president of the Truman National Security Project and a former Army captain who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that trying to use ground troops to fight decentralized threats such as al-Qaeda is costly and counterproductive, and results primarily in an increased level of violent insurgents.

“Not only is it ridiculously expensive, it doesn’t actually work. It multiplies your threats; it doesn’t conserve your threats,” Breen said.

He also emphasized the importance of talking about the Defense budget in the context of “an integrated national security budget,” including funds allocated to the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development in order to promote stability in volatile regions where U.S. armed forces have intervened.

Jim Arkedis, director of the National Security Project at the Progressive Policy Institute, outlined the expenses that pile on with every soldier sent to battle, noting that the government must then provide care to these men and women for the rest of their lives.

“If we let this continue, the Pentagon is going to become a health care company that essentially fights wars on the side,” Arkedis said. “Now, that’s hyperbole, of course, but there’s an underlying point there.”

Getting Congress on board with any proposed cuts will be an arduous undertaking for the department, the panelists agreed.

“One of the reasons we were a world leader in the 20th century was that we maintained a pretty consistent bipartisan consensus on what our national security strategy ought to be,” Breen told Government Executive following the panel. “I think we know what the outlines of consensus ought to look like today. It’s just a question of getting it done.”

Soon after the panel ended, Defense revealed its latest proposed spending cuts, which include a reduction of 80,000 combat troops.