As I have noted many times over the past three years, we are in a long-term drawdown at the Pentagon; the Department of Defense budget will continue to head south. But for those three years, the DOD has been resisting this notion.
From the Pentagon's point of view, the $487 billion the secretary took out of the FY 2012 10-year projection for defense budgets (which flattened but did not cut the defense budget) is the bottom line; anything else is "doomsday" for the defense strategy he articulated last year and for our national security.
Secretary Panetta continued this hyperbolic rhetoric about defense cuts last Thursday in his joint press conference with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Panetta warned that "the most immediate threat to our ability to achieve our mission is fiscal uncertainty, not knowing what our budget will be, not knowing if our budget will be drastically cut, and not knowing whether the strategy that we've put in place can survive...All told, this uncertainty, if left unresolved by the Congress, will seriously harm our military readiness."
This politically-intended hyperventilation was accompanied by a memo to the military services the same day from Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter asking them to draft plans to cope with lower levels of funding this year.
These spending cuts, Panetta and Carter both said, could result from either the looming sequester or from the extension through the rest of the year of the continuing resolution currently governing the defense budget.
In reality, the Carter memo was the first sign of recognition inside the Pentagon that there is no uncertainty here; a defense drawdown is truly underway. While the rhetoric reeked of hyperbole, the memo looked like exactly what DOD should start doing as the money drifts away. It focuses on one of the Pentagon's most pressing long-term fiscal issues: the bloated (now that Chuck Hagel has koshered the term) "back office" at DOD.
Specifically, the memo asks the services to prepare for lower funding levels by freezing civilian hiring and considering furloughs for up to 22 days for some civilian staff. It asks the services to consider releasing temporary employees and imposing hiring freezes. It also asks the services to cancel maintenance activities at the depots that repair and overhaul military equipment.
It suggests that non-essential training and conference activities be suspended as part of these plans. It also suggests the services curtail travel, maintenance of facilities, and such administrative expenses as supplies, IT, and the ubiquitous Pentagon and military ceremonies.
And it set operational priorities. Protect funding for war operations, wounded warrior programs, readiness, family programs, and activities associated with the Pacific pivot strategy.
Operations is one of the key areas the Pentagon needs to focus on in a drawdown. It eats up about a third of the Pentagon budget, is over-staffed, very difficult to track, and has proven almost impossible to control in the past. And while furloughs would be an appropriate (and likely) short-term response to budget cuts, a longer-term strategy would be to gradually thin the civil service by attrition.