This Week – Supercommittee failure looms

It looks as though the U.S. bipartisan supercommittee charged with finding at least .2 trillion in budget cuts over the next decade is about to collapse amid recriminations.

Failure to reach agreement before Wednesday’s deadline will trigger the sequestration of funds that would affect programs across the board – including the military budget where the Pentagon is already tasked with identifying billion in savings. It became apparent yesterday (Sunday) from rancorous comments by Republicans and Democrats on the 12-person committee on the morning TV talk shows that they were preparing to throw in the towel after failing to agree measures to trim the nation’s trillion deficit.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta fired a shot across the bows last week, warning that sequestration would mean a further 20 percent of cuts which – he says – would have “devastating effects” on the nation’s defenses.

In an alarmist letter to Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain, in which he spelled out the worst case scenario on the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Panetta said that plans to replace the Ohio-class submarine with the SSBN (X) in 20 years’ time, and to modernize the strategic bomber could be delayed. The land based intercontinental ballistic missile force – an entire leg of the nuclear Triad – could be scrapped, along with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the dual capable aircraft plagued by cost overruns and technical problems.

Plenty arms control analysts have pointed out that Panetta and the Defense Department are crying wolf because the predicted cuts under sequestration simply won’t happen. The sequester, to be announced in January 2012 – if it becomes a reality – would only come into effect in fiscal year 2013, meaning that Congress has nearly a year to reverse any mandated cuts.

Jeffrey Lewis, at, has done the math. He says: “Essentially, sequestration means that the Pentagon needs to move 400 warheads to sea on a slightly smaller number of SSBNs. To put this in perspective, if the U.S. were to agree to another round of nuclear reductions with Russia within the parameters floating around Washington, the result would look a lot like a sequestration deterrent.”

And here’s Walter Pincus in the Washington Post: “With such an underwater fleet, do we still need up to 400 new land-based ICBMs? And why have any strategic bombers fitted to carry nuclear weapons?”

In other words, Panetta’s worst case scenario entailing procurement delays actually doesn’t look so bad, and would give military planners more time to decide whether it is appropriate to maintain a Cold War armory and force structure against 21st century threats which are no longer confined to Russia.

Even so, it would be surprising if Congress ends up ordering bigger cuts than the billion being examined by the Pentagon. House Republicans on the Armed Services Committee are committed to full funding, while the administration is pushing for billion to be invested in the nuclear weapons complex and billion on the delivery systems over the next 10 years as part of the New START ratification deal with Senators.

The supercommittee failure is not entirely unexpected given the politically charged debate on the raising of the debt ceiling last summer. But the United States is entering uncharted waters, and it remains to be seen how the financial markets will react. The Committee’s Republican co-chairman, Representative Jeb Hensarling, put it this way in an interview with the Washington Post: “it is a huge blown opportunity, and as a nation, we are on borrowed time.”
-These are the personal views of the author.

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