Tuesday, February 19, 2013

EDITORIAL >> Our military biggest target

Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) visited Little Rock Air Force Base yesterday, concerned about automatic budget cuts that will go into effect if Congress doesn’t find a sensible way to reduce spending this month. A strange mechanism called sequestration will kick in March 1, resulting in about 10 percent cuts in federal spending.

You might say that’s a great idea, but for a military community like ours, that’s a big hit. About half of the cuts would come from the military budget. That figure may be a bit higher since the Pentagon had previously agreed to reductions to reflect U.S. withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq and a reduction in forces. The Air Force will shrink to about 300,000, about half what it was in the 1990s with the end of the Soviet empire.

If sequestration takes effect next week, the Pentagon will immediately lose $54.6 billion from its approximately $530 billion budget and will be cut at least $50 billion every year for a decade. The cuts are already being felt at Little Rock Air Force Base, where the 19th Operations Group has reduced flight training from five days to four. Hundreds of civilians will go on furlough if the cuts go into effect.

The Air Force has more than 180,000 civilian employees, and many of them will lose their jobs as the military downsizes.

What’s more, those who will continue to serve will see a vastly different military. Starting March 1, the Pentagon will only have money for emergency facility repairs at military bases.

“That results in a 90 percent reduction in those expenditures through the rest of the fiscal year,” Jamie Morin, acting under secretary of the Air Force, said recently. More than 400 projects at more than 140 bases will be frozen, saving $2.9 billion.

But if there’s sequestration, the Air Force will have to cut $12.4 billion more this year and still come up with $1.8 billion for overseas contingency operations. So more cuts will have to be made elsewhere.

“We’ve taken a series of initial actions, but those actions don’t come close to covering $12.4 billion,” Morin said. “There’s a lot more we’d have to do.” He said aircraft needing maintenance will be grounded until funds become available to service them later.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, sees more cuts on the horizon because military planners had agreed to several hundred billion dollars in cuts over the next decade long before there was talk of sequestration.

“Now on top of that with sequestration, we’ll take an additional $500 billion worth of cuts in the Department of Defense, so we’re now up to $1.2 trillion,” he said in a speech last week at the liberal Brookings Institution. “Add in another $100 billion that DoD needs to find in its base budget to preserve programs, like technology to defeat roadside bombs, which were paid for out of wartime supplemental funds that are going away (formally called ‘overseas contingency operations’ funding or OCO), and we’re now up to $1.3 trillion worth of cuts.”

Sure, they speak a different language in Washington and sometimes it’s hard to understand how Congress spends your money. But after a decade of service in two wars, military members will make the biggest sacrifice once again. As one colonel at the air base told us, “Our command is prepared. We will follow their guidance.” May that guidance be wise and just.