US Strategy, Sequestration, and the Growing Strategy-Reality Gap

Sequestration is no longer a hypothetical scenario, but is now a reality in the US. As members of Congress take steps to make sequestration a permanent part of the FY2013 budget, the implications of austerity on defense and national security are starting to become more clear.

The House of Representatives has already passed a continuing resolution that factors sequestration into the FY2013 budget. While the resolution allows for some leeway for the Department of Defense to determine the allocation of resources, it does not eliminate the overall cost of the sequester on the department, and does not include measures to safeguard non-security related discretionary accounts.

The sequester and the ensuing debate over it have also challenged planning for the FY2014 budget, and the impact of the cuts on the budget baseline remain uncertain – posing challenges to defense planning. Moreover, the sequester does little to address the most serious burden on the federal budget: entitlement spending.

Recent reports and memos from the Congressional Budget Office. Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Defense, and the military services have shown the damage sudden across-the-board cuts could have on national security and strategic planning. At the same time, a broader review of US strategy and defense programming and budget problems shows that the Budget Control Act and the sequester are only part of the problem.

An updated brief by the Burke Chair analyzes the forces driving the crisis, recent policy developments and data on the implementation of the sequester, defense spending, and the broader strategic and budgetary risks shaping US Future Year Defense Spending.

An executive summary that focuses on the budget issues and shortfalls is available on the CSIS web site at The full report is entitled US Strategy, Sequestration, and the Growing Strategy-Reality Gap, and is available on the CSIS web site here.

The brief provides a service-by-service assessment of the aspects of the defense budget that are jeopardized by sequestration, based on the latest unclassified information from the Department of Defense and from statements made by senior officials. It highlights how sequestration can affect the impact of defense spending on total federal spending and the US economy.

It provides detailed graphs and tables showing the pressures on defense spending caused by growing expenditures on domestic entitlement spending, how these interact with the impact of the Budget Control Act and sequestration, and the problems caused by the Department’s failures to make realistic force plans and budget projections to bring its costs under control. It also highlights the far underlying problems that are driving the rise in entitlement spending – particularly Medicare and Social Security.

At the same time, the brief highlights the problems in a US strategy that lacks coherence and is not based on real world force plans, personnel plans, and procurement plans. It shows that the Department of Defense has failed to shape a real world mix of strategy and plans. It has also failed to bring its costs under control, formulate realistic plans and budgets, and close the gap between its strategy and the need for realistic plans and budgets.

For example, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Department of Defense has underestimated the true price of implementing its programs by $14 billion in FY2013 alone. This means that with the sequester, the Department will be $66 billion short of the resources needed to implement its programs in FY2013, and not simply due to the impact of sequestration alone.

The brief also shows that a major gap exists between the broad, undefined strategic rhetoric in the new strategy and the budget-driven spending cuts in the FY2013 budget submission. It examines the critical shortcomings in the new strategy the Department of Defense issued. It shows how vague and uncertain many aspects of the new US strategy are, that the military services are often developing their own approaches to strategy, and that many elements of the strategy remain decoupled from the FY2013-FY2017 Future Year Defense Plan.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy

Robert M. Shelala II