Archive for Sunday, September 18, 2011

Defense feels threat from debt debate

September 18, 2011


— It must take some getting used to. Leon Panetta, the secretary of defense, knows the Pentagon is under 24-hour cyber siege. There constantly are thousands of what he calls “exploitive” cyber probes from nations “pulsing the system,” trying to devise tools to disrupt the control systems without which complex societies such as ours cannot function. Panetta, a seasoned Washingtonian who laughs easily and a temperate Californian who frets about the San Francisco Giants’ bats, is not given to hyperbole. But he says any cyber attack that “crippled our (electricity) grid or took down our financial system would make Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined look mild” in terms of social disruption.

Although a cyber attack “is moving up” on his list of his worries, it ranks only “third or fourth,” behind North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear weapons programs, what he calls terrorism “nodes” in places such as like Yemen, Somalia and North Africa, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Iraq, the mission of the remnant of U.S. forces — the number 3,000 has been bruited — will, Panetta says, include counterterrorism actions “working with the Iraqis.” Which leaves a lot of room for danger.

Panetta’s most immediate worry, however, is visible from the windows of his office overlooking the Potomac — Capitol Hill, where the “supercommittee” created by August’s debt-ceiling agreement is sitting. By Thanksgiving it will either agree to do something important — reduce the next decade’s debt by at least $1.2 trillion — or its disagreements will trigger something important: A sequester.

This would take from military budgets nearly $500 billion, in addition to a minimum of $350 billion cuts already scheduled. An almost trillion-dollar trimming, Panetta says flatly, “cannot take place.” Actually, he knows it can: “The gun to the head could really go off.” Even without a sequester, the military “is going to be a smaller force.” And with a sequester? The 1.5 million active-duty members of the armed services and 700,000 civilian employees of the Defense Department depend on an industrial base of more than 3.8 million persons. According to the Pentagon, a sequester would substantially shrink those three numbers, perhaps adding a point to the nation’s unemployment rate. The cuts would leave the smallest Army and Marine Corps in more than a decade and the smallest tactical Air Force since this service became independent of the Army in 1947. The Navy has already shrunk almost to its smallest fleet size since World War I.

Time was, when Democrats looked at the defense budget with a skeptical squint, Republicans rallied ‘round it. No more. Few tea partyers remember Washington’s hawk-versus-dove dramas. They live to slow spending, period. They are constitutionalists but insufficiently attentive to the fact that defense is something the federal government does that it actually should do. And when they are told that particular military expenditures are crucial to force projection, they say: As in Libya? Been there, don’t want to do that.  

Much of the defense budget is consumed by pay and health care for uniformed personnel, who have been abused enough by repeated deployments. The priciest new weapon, the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (at least $90 million per plane), is vital for the continued salience of aircraft carriers, which are the basis of the U.S. strategic presence in the Western Pacific. Inferring China’s geopolitical intentions from its military purchases is difficult, but Panetta says guardedly that in five years China’s force projection will be “much better.” The Marines, with their smaller carriers, need a short-takeoff model F-35. Cut the number of planes built, the cost per plane rises, and the ability to recoup costs through sales to allies declines.

Panetta’s two years as CIA director were important preparation for his current job; his nine terms in Congress, and four years as Bill Clinton’s head of the Office of Management and Budget and then chief of staff, were essential. A defense secretary’s tenure, more than that of any other Cabinet member, is graded by events a decade after he has left office, when the nation either has or does not have the military capabilities a crisis demands.

Until recently, Panetta thought there was a 90 percent probability of a sequester. Now he is less pessimistic because he thinks everybody was “burned” by the debt-ceiling battle. “The next few months,” he says, “are going to tell us a hell of a lot.” But the meaning of what is told may not become clear for 10 years.

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is


cato_the_elder 6 years, 9 months ago

Leon Panetta is an American hero. When the dust is settled and histories are written, it will be Leon Panetta who will be recognized as the one leader who had the guts to make the decision to take out Osama bin Laden, and by his will forced Barack Obama and the repugnant Valerie Jarrett to agree to it.

Flap Doodle 6 years, 9 months ago

Consider the fact that the current regime whizzed away half a billion dollars on the Solyndra mad scheme. Maybe things like this are making the debt crisis worse. "..."Why so much pressure to give half a billion dollars to a doomed venture? The administration insists it had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that Solyndra’s big backers include the George Kaiser Family Foundation. No, of course not. George Kaiser, an Oklahoma oil magnate, just happens to be a major Obama fundraiser who bundled oodles in contributions for the president’s 2008 campaign. Solyndra officers and investors are said to have visited the White House no fewer than 20 times while the loan guarantee was being considered and, later, revised. Kaiser, too, made several visits — but not to worry: Both he and administration officials deny any impropriety. You’re to believe that the White House was just turning up the heat on OMB and DOE because Solyndra seemed like such a swell investment. Except it didn’t seem so swell to people who knew how to add and subtract, and those people weren’t all at OMB and DOE. Flush with confidence that their mega-loan from Uncle Sam would make the company attractive to private investors, Solyndra’s backers prepared to take the company public. Unfortunately, SEC rules for an initial public offering of stock require the disclosure of more than Obama speeches glowing with solar power. Companies that want access to the market have to reveal their financial condition. In Solyndra’s case, outside auditors from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) found that condition to be dire. “The company has suffered recurring losses from operations, negative cash flows since inception, and has a net stockholders’ deficit,” the PWC accountants concluded. Even with the gigantic Obama loan, Solyndra was such a basket case that PWC found “substantial doubt about its ability to continue as a going concern.”..."

Paul R Getto 6 years, 9 months ago

Good column, Mr. Will. D.C. played chicken all summer over the phony debt ceiling issue; now, because no one has the courage to act on either side, they will play chicken again with the unconstitutional 'super committee.' I agree with Newt G. If they wanted to do this, have open hearings with testimony and witnesses so we can all watch on C-Span. Then, after taking information, make decisions on what and who is to be cut and what, if any, revenue increases are necessary to get us on the path to solvency. I am trying to be optimistic, but fear they will just stare each other down until the final hours, then leave the military and the rest of us in a good old fashioned pile of steaming cow poo.

Paul R Getto 6 years, 9 months ago

"Much of the defense budget is consumed by pay and health care for uniformed personnel, who have been abused enough by repeated deployments." === After rereading this column, this could be the most important point. The vets are getting screwed over and we are creating tens of thousands of survivors who will probably need life-time treatments to survive and flourish. Endless wars may be fun for the generals and their toys, but they play hell with those who do the actual work of war. The vets deserve our support and praise.

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