The Pentagon in a holding pattern

The Pentagon in a holding pattern

Posted on December 16th, 2011 in Blog, News

With the news that Congress has averted a government shutdown and passed an omnibus appropriations bill (summary here), some are breathing sighs of relief. Well, it’s enough to get us through the holidays, but once 2012 hits, the real troubles begin. It’s an election year of course, and so point-scoring and posturing will be even higher, willingness to compromise lower, and time shorter than ever. Growing deficits and the prospect of Budget Control Act Sequestration hang over every Federal Department, and while some in Congress hope to exempt the Pentagon, it’s not at all clear that they have support to pass such a measure, with or without offsets, or that it will survive a threatened veto.

What’s most troubling is the timing. Given the election, campaigning will take up a good part of the year. The outcome of the elections–and the resulting outlook for future Defense spending–is far from certain. There might be a new President in office in 2013–but that race is unlikely to turn on defense issues. From November through January, a lame duck Congress (regardless of the President’s status) will be hard-pressed to take any positive or decisive action…and the sequestration deadline is January 2, 2013.

How is the Pentagon reacting to this? While behind the scenes the Services are no doubt putting together 1-n lists and preparing some contingencies, its public stance seems to be somewhere between denial and defiance, with some hand-wringing thrown in for good measure. Philip Ewing of DoDBuzz calls it an “ostrich strategy.” Certainly SecDef Panetta’s memo to the Senate Armed Services Committee does nothing but paint a dire picture of harm resulting from further reductions in Pentagon growth plans.

We’ll see what the DoD Strategy Review produces–but don’t hold your breath for any dramatic changes. Early indications are the the FY13 PBR and FYDP will also take the “show no weakness” approach and bravely assume that the cuts are finished. Right now, based on public pronouncements, the FY12 budget, and past experience, the Pentagon’s approach looks very much like an attempt to muddle through and hope for relief. It might work. Or we might see a lot of last minute maneuvering and angst a year from now. My bet is on a year of uncertainty.