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Will We Really See Future Weapons Gutted? (Updated)

by John Reed on November 16, 2011

Edwards AFB F-35A Test Aircraft

Automatic, “salami slice” cuts to Pentagon budgets may be unlikely despite recent predictions of fiscal doom for the Defense Department should the Congressional supercommittee fail to reach an agreement on debt reduction by next week.

First off, supercommittee Chairman, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tx.) has come out and said that Congress will likely find a way to avoid salami slice cuts across the government, and especially the DoD, if no agreement is reached.

Here’s what he told CNBC Tuesday night:

a lot of people don’t realize $1.2 trillion of deficit reduction is going to happen anyway. We’d prefer to do it in a smarter fashion. And the 1.2, frankly, half of that is aimed at national security. Leon Panetta, our secretary of defense, says that will hollow out our defense. So, number one, I would be committed to keeping the 1.2. We’ve got 13 months to find a smarter way to do it. I think the cuts that are aimed at defense, frankly, go too far. But this is one–this is a very important point that you make. You know, if the 1.5 isn’t met, there’s a 1.2 backstop right there.

That year’s worth of wiggle room Hensarling refers to is the fact that the auto cuts, called sequestration, won’t go into effect until 2013. As the Congressman said, this gives lawmakers plenty of time to rework any budget cuts.

(Keep in mind that Hensarling isn’t the only one on the Hill who wants to avoid accross the board cuts to defense coffers.)

(UPDATE:) Todd Harrison, a military budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments – a think tank whose ideas often find their way into the highest levels of the Pentagon — predicts that Congress will de-fang the threat posed by sequestration.

Here’s what he told me during a phone conversation this morning:

I think the odds of sequestration being triggered are fairly high, all that requires is that the supercommittee fails or Congress doesn’t enact whatever the supercommittee comes up with; so there’s a fairly decent chance of that. But it’s a full year before sequestration actually goes into enforcement, and I think the odds of it getting enforced are pretty low. I think what they will try to do is just nullify the sequestration provision of the Budget Control Act or just delay its enforcement until 2014 or further in the future. If they aren’t able to agree on a set of cuts in the supercommittee then the cuts probably won’t happen for the time being, they’ll be pushed off into the future.

I think it’s increasingly looking like that ‘ll be the outcome but you never know what will happen at the last minute. If next Wednesday late in the night, just before the deadline they might somehow pull a rabbit out of a hat and strike a deal, who knows.

Harrison’s thoughts echo those of Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at the Teal Group, who told DT yesterday that we won’t see the Pentagon gutted:

Worst-case scenarios like Panetta’s won’t happen because the threat of worst-case scenarios will do a very good job of mobilizing support in favor of the defense budget. The Republicans will control the House and Senate, and possibly the White House. The deficit hawks of the Tea Party look set to lose big against the traditional defense hawks. That S&P debt rating downgrade resulted in lower rates, weakening the deficit hawks. With a threatening world political environment, polls consistently show strong public opposition to heavy defense cuts. Against this backdrop, sequestration cuts will not be implemented.

Interestingly, Harrison pointed out that that Panetta’s “worst case of a worst case” budget scenario might actually put less pressure on the committee to reach a budget deal by Nov. 23.

I think that him raising the rhetoric up as high as he has, may actually have the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of putting more pressure on the supercommittee to reach a deal, if you make the consequences of sequestration seem so severe and so dire that they’re no longer credible, because Congress wouldn’t let something that bad happen; so that actuallyy removes pressure from the supercommitttee to make a deal.

It gives them the incentive to say, ‘you know what, we don’t need to make a deal because even if we trigger sequestration, Congress will override it, they won’t actually let it go into effect, so it’s not that bad.’ That’s the unfortunate consequence if you raise the rhetoric too high.

Nevertheless, it may be unwise to completely ignore the threat of sequestration, according to Aboulafia:

Of course, here’s another paradox: people who regard worst-case defense budget scenarios as a bunch of hype weaken support for a firm stand against defense cuts. But objectively, yes, there’s a lot of hype here.

Still, as Aboulafia — and Phil over at DoDBuzz — note, the United States is facing a brand new set of big security challenges that center on hedging against a rising China and managing a decline in the power of its traditional allies in Europe. It’s very hard to imagine that lawmakers will allow the Pentagon to lose all the key programs like the F-35 Joint StrikeFighter that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says will be gone if the supercomittee fails.

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