The major deficit-reduction mechanism that the U.S. government adopted as law more than a year ago but never really intended to use will nevertheless take effect on March 1 after political parties failed to reach agreement on cutting costs. “Sequestration” forces the Department of Defense to slash $46 billion from its budget through the end of the fiscal year in September, and some $500 billion over the next decade.
For months, military and civilian defense officials have warned that sequestration will erode military training, readiness, maintenance, procurement and research and development accounts, leading to a “hollow force.” Big-ticket weapons acquisitions such as the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will likely be delayed. But despite a flurry of testimony by defense officials in February, lawmakers were already looking beyond the sequestration deadline to March 27, when the continuing resolution (CR), or short-term spending plan under which government is operating, expires. That deadline forces the Congress to pass another spending plan and could provide the legislative body with an opportunity to “de-trigger” or ameliorate sequestration.
The CR funds the military services at Fiscal Year 2012 levels, less than authorized by Congress for the current Fiscal Year 2013. In testimony before the House Appropriations Committee defense subcommittee on February 26, the military service chiefs said the impact of sequestration is compounded by a spending shortfall resulting from the CR. They also specified the weapons acquisitions they plan to modify or cut back, citing programs including the Lockheed Martin F-35, the Boeing P-8A Poseidon and KC-46 tanker, the Bell Boeing V-22 and the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper.
Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh III said that sequestration will cost his service $12.4 billion this year, affecting every non-exempt account and program. When coupled with the shortfall resulting from a CR, “sequestration disrupts weapons system program strategies, cost and schedules,” he said in written testimony. “For example, F-35A low-rate initial production would see reductions of at least two aircraft from the requested 19 in Fiscal Year 2013,” he said.
The budgetary constraints also complicate long-term acquisition strategies. “The KC-46 contract may require renegotiation…which would unquestionably insert additional expense and delay into the carefully crafted program,” Welsh said. “Without ‘new start’ authority, the MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft would experience a year delay to planned kinetic and encrypted datalink communications upgrades. The CV-22 multi-year program would also be delayed, with the entire contract voided on July 1, 2013 should we not receive the necessary appropriations authority to award the contract.”