Late last week, Robert Hale, undersecretary of defense, comptroller and chief financial officer at the Pentagon told a Federal News Radio host that there would be no further reduction in furloughs for DOD workers.
"We're not going to make any more changes in furlough days," Hale said on Federal News Radio Friday. "We're in our fifth day this week. Next week, for almost all of our employees, will be the last week and it will end next week…As we get right down to the end of the fiscal year, there may be some changes in other areas, but none that will affect furloughs."
What Hale failed to mention, however, is that the amount of furlough days DOD workers were forced to take had been drastically reduced. When sequestration began, the Pentagon said workers would be forced to stay home without pay for 22 days. In May, that number went down to 11. Last week, DOD announced that workers would only be furloughed for six days.
The reduction in furloughs is the latest in a series of events that have disproven the assertion by Pentagon leadership that even one year sequestration would devastate the military. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said it hurts military readiness. Generals told lawmakers that national security projects would be shelved. These lawmakers then told their constituents that Washington's inability to compromise makes voters unsafe.
But five and a half months after sequestration took effect, the Pentagon seems to be in decent shape, even though it has had to cut back in some areas. U.S. fighters are not falling from the sky. Submarines aren't sinking to the bottom of the ocean. U.S. troops in Afghanistan still have all of the support they need to complete their mission.
"As of this day, all the way down the road, on a daily basis, DOD continues to function with impunity. There have been no failures of operational readiness," said retired Army Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer, an analyst with the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington. "Readiness was never seriously questioned. It was never in doubt. Those responsible for training on a daily basis found ways to maintain it.”
Shaffer said were able to trim some of the fat that has accumulated over the last decade without disrupting mission critical priorities.
"When a service is handed a cut, they put up their most important program and then they negotiate over it. That trick is not working anymore," he said. "You really have to cut back on expenditures. They’re [DOD decision makers] given sufficient time. I think people are going to start noodling through things and find things they just don’t need."
For instance, DOD has found savings by instituting a hiring freeze for civilian workers. Some training and weapons maintenance has been delayed. And some savings have been achieved through furlough, even though they're been reduced.
DOD also lowered costs by budgeting creatively, like other agencies and private companies do. In March, Congress quietly passed a bill exempting the Pentagon from across the board cuts. Instead, DOD was allowed to move money from account to account in order to make more strategic spending choices.
The spending situation has grown so rosy that President Obama announced last Friday that military personnel are exempt from sequestration cuts in 2014 if Congress doesn’t repeal them. That means that U.S. soldiers would see no reduction in pay or benefits.
Shaffer also dismissed a claim by Harry Reid that sequestration led to the death of 7 Marines during a training exercise in March. Shaffer said the incident was nothing more than a tragic accident.
“No amount of money can correct mistakes,” he said.
ROOM FOR MORE CUTS
According to Shaffer, there’s room for more. By any measure, DOD’s budget is still bloated. It doubled in the decade after the 2001 terror attacks, and is expected to grow in the coming years despite sequestration. He said that DOD leaders are planning to meet at the Army War College to discuss more areas where cuts are possible.
“You have the best minds of the army thinking this through,” he said. “Like the rest of society, we’re going to have to make difficult budget choices.”