The Pentagon’s ostrich strategy

What does it mean that no one wants to seriously face the worst-case scenario for defense spending?

The Pentagon has spent months officially ignoring its own worst nightmare.

In August, when everyone was first absorbing the budget implications of the debt ceiling agreement, a senior Pentagon official told reporters that DoD had no backup plan in case the super committee failed. We just hope it won’t come to that, the official said, then became the first of many to raise the prospect of layoffs, furloughs and other big disruptions across the empire.

On Friday, the Pentagon’s top spokesmen once again railed against the prospect of sequestration. Press Secretary George Little said it would be “devastating” and “irresponsible” and “a doomsday scenario.” But he also repeated that the Building is making no plans for dealing with it:

“Our focus is not on planning for sequestration.  We’ve not been asked to plan for sequestration.  We are laser-focused on our mission of protecting the American people.”

Yet somehow, between these two bookends, Secretary Panetta was able to draft his now-famous letter to Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, warning that sequestration could mean an end to the F-35; the new bomber; SSBN(X); the littoral combat ship; the ground combat vehicle; Army helicopter modernization; “major space initiatives;” European missile defense; and the Air Force’s land-based nuclear missiles. Panetta said the post-apocalyptic military would be a “hollow force” and a “paper tiger.”

So DoD does have some idea about what sequestration would mean, even though it hasn’t been told to plan for it, even though it has been yelling for months that it would be the worst thing imaginable. But for the Pentagon to officially acknowledge it can conceive of the consequences of sequestration might send the message they’d be somehow acceptable, and DoD can’t have anyone thinking that.

Instead it’s embracing its once-dreaded first round of $450 billion in reduced growth over the next 10 years. Another top department spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby, said Monday that DoD plans to submit the standard future years defense plan along with its fiscal 2013 budget, just as it always does. The belief seems to be that if everyone sees how eager the Pentagon has been to swallow reductions up to a certain point, somebody somehow will save it from the guillotine.

Indeed, Secretary Panetta and other top leaders probably want to make sure everybody on the Hill knows in granular detail just how many marbles they stand to lose. Starting in January and continuing through the formal budget rollout, the message will be clear: If you think $450 billion is bad, just wait’ll we have to come up here with another $500 billion — maybe you guys should get some kind of deal to stop that from happening, don’tcha think?

For its part, the Pentagon can only give an official response to the guidance it gets from the White House, which, yes, has not instructed it to do the worst-case budget drills. In fact, to the outside world, Friday’s numbers from the Office of Management and Budget might not look like “cuts” at all: The base defense budget would grow from $523 billion in fiscal 2013 to $567 billion in fiscal 2017, and the overall defense budget, including war costs, would grow from $605 billion to almost $618 billion.

But that’s compared to earlier budgets that assumed a base budget of almost $571 billion in 13 growing to around $622 billion in 17. Sequestration would throw an even bigger monkey wrench into budget planning, given not only its greater bite but its arrival partway through a fiscal year, meaning it could cause the Defense Department to seize up like an engine with no oil.

The ongoing frustration is not knowing what any of it actually means. Does the administration’s choice not to plan for sequestration mean that it doesn’t actually consider it the big threat everyone says it is? Is the fix in? Or is this really the trillion-dollar game of chicken that it appears to be?