In my last days as defense secretary earlier this year, I made one final effort on Capitol Hill to persuade the leadership of Congress not to let sequestration happen. I described the serious impact on defense readiness and the real danger that it would hollow out the force.
Every member of the leadership, Democrat and Republican, agreed with my analysis but to a person admitted there was little that could be done. I persisted. I even offered additional defense savings in exchange for the discretion to determine where the cuts could take place. Finally, one member praised my efforts to find a compromise but said: “Leon, you don’t understand. The Congress is resigned to failure.”
It was difficult for me to accept that explanation then, and it is even more difficult to accept it now in the face of mounting evidence that the sequester is doing serious damage to our defense, our society and our economy.
In defense alone, according to recent testimony to the House Armed Services Committee by Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Adm. James A. Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, fewer than half of the Air Force’s frontline fighters are combat-ready; 12 combat squadrons have been grounded; key Combat Training Center rotations have been canceled; multiple ship deployments, including the USS Truman carrier strike group, have been canceled; and furloughs for 650,000 civilian employees continue, resulting in a 20 percent pay reduction during every furlough week. These and other effects of sequestration are weakening the United States’ ability to respond effectively to a major crisis in the world beyond the war zone in Afghanistan.
To have this happen under any circumstance is irresponsible. To have it happen as the result of a self-inflicted wound is outrageous.
Leon Panetta was director of central intelligence from 2009 to 2011 and secretary of defense from 2011 to 2013. He was a Democratic representative from California from 1977 to 1994.