WASHINGTON -- A funny thing happened on the way to a predicted disaster: The Pentagon is learning to live with the automatic budget cuts its leaders had warned would threaten national security if they took effect.
The change from near-hysteria to sober assessment starts at the top with new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a former maverick Republican senator from Nebraska who’s long pushed for serious restructuring of military spending. He replaced Leon Panetta in February.
Defense analysts say the forced spending reductions – called a sequester on Capitol Hill – and the arrival of a new Pentagon chief are compelling military leaders to focus on core national security needs and to operate more efficiently after the expenditure of what will reach $5 trillion on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and a near doubling of the overall defense budget from 2001 to 2011.
“Things have settled down since the sequester started,” retired Army Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer, an analyst with the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington who speaks regularly with top military officers and civilian Pentagon leaders, told McClatchy.
“They’re looking at how, with a lower budget, to maintain real focus on real threats,” Shaffer said. “The generals are reluctant to speak publicly about it, but there have been no detrimental effects on mission-critical capabilities.”Among the core capabilities that Shaffer said remain unharmed are a broad range of global exercises and deployments involving carrier battle groups and military training teams; military operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere that the Pentagon classifies as “critical” or “sensitive”; and military schools and combat training.
A little-noticed provision, contained in the stopgap funding bill that Congress passed in March, gave the Pentagon more flexibility than other federal agencies in applying its $42 billion share of the automatic cuts through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
While other agencies must apply the cuts equally across all programs, the Pentagon may transfer funds among programs in order to take into account critical national security tasks.
Following the terms of the August 2011 debt-ceiling deal, which put the across-the-board spending cuts in place if Congress failed to find more targeted ones, Obama exempted the nation’s 1.4 million active-duty troops from pay cuts or furloughs.
Pentagon officials announced last week that 680,000 of its 800,000 civilian employees worldwide will go on unpaid furloughs totaling up to 11 days apiece through September, with 120,000 exempt from the temporary layoffs.
“We will furlough the remainder of our civilians and then move money around to try to minimize adverse effects on readiness,” Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale said.
The maximum of 11 furlough days is half the number that Pentagon officials were saying several months ago would be necessary to save money under sequestration. Now teachers at dozens of schools on military bases will be furloughed no more than five days. Some of the 120,000 employees who won’t get furloughed work at Navy shipyards, where they help maintain nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers.
“We’re talking about nuclear safety,” Hale said. “All these workers do nuclear maintenance. So we were really talking about seriously adversely affecting our ability to deploy carriers and submarines. And we made a decision that that was too serious an adverse effect on mission.”