By Cord A. Sterling
Since the nation's founding, Virginians have stepped forward to defend our freedom and make the sacrifices necessary to protect our liberty. From the snowy winters of the revolution to the blistering deserts of the Middle East to the Pakistan compound where our own SEAL team led the way, Virginia has been there.
It's true on the home front as well. For generations our shipyards have laid keel for the greatest navy in the world, and today our high tech industry ensures America leads the world in must-have defense capabilities from night vision to satellites to drones.
But today a new opponent confronts those who serve in uniform abroad, and those who support them in industry at home -- massive "sequestration" budget cuts that virtually every expert says would gut our military capabilities and destroy over a million American jobs.
Triggered when the Congressional deficit supercommittee failed to achieve tax and entitlement reform last fall, sequestration means $500 billion in across-the-board reductions to every program in our military. The ultimate in mindless "salami slicing," the law would forbid Department of Defense (DOD) planners from focusing cuts on wasteful or outmoded expenditures in order to preserve essential capabilities. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calls it a "goofy meat axe" that would fundamentally weaken our nation and "generate significant operation risk" to our troops. Tom Buffenbarger of the Machinists Union warns "sequestration will result in two indisputable outcomes -- more unemployment and a country that is less secure."
According to a study by George Mason University, these indiscriminate sequestration cuts would suck $10.5 billion -- with a "b" -- out of Virginia's economy and slash growth by over half a percentage point. They would eliminate more than 122,000 jobs from the local economy, with another 32,000 Virginia-based positions slashed from within DOD itself. Many of these are high-skill machinists, welders, electricians, and engineers -- like the thousands of shipbuilders at work today on the Navy's next flagship, the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford -- a reservoir of defense-unique expertise and know-how that would be extraordinarily difficult to rebuild if we abandon these men and women today.
Defense work has been a buoy for Virginia's economy in recent tough times, supporting over 113,000 jobs, $8 billion in sales, and $150 million in state government revenues each year. We lead the nation in defense investments per resident, with aerospace defense firms generating almost 2 percent of our local gross domestic product. But the abrupt system shock of budget sequestration could crash our local economy, with pink-slipped workers flooding into the job market, driving down wages and dragging down retail and local service businesses in military communities up and down the state. We've already seen the failed results in Europe of this type of myopic austerity -- it's an economic horror show America must not repeat.
The damage to our military would be equally severe. Panetta has warned that sequestration would inevitably hollow out our forces, cutting deeply into training and readiness and requiring us to throw the newly crafted national defense strategy "out the window." Congressman Randy Forbes calls it "a menu for mediocrity" that would mean "dismantling the greatest military [in] the world."
Major projects like submarines and carriers built at Newport News would likely bear the brunt of these mandatory across-the-board reductions because, as the cecretary puts it, "you cannot buy three-quarters of ship." Cuts to advanced research and modernization approaching 40 percent by some estimates would shrink the technology gap that allowed America to field stealth jets, drones, smart bombs and dozens of other innovations ahead of our battlefield opponents. It would also choke off the flow of defense innovations like computers, GPS, and jet engines that routinely spin off into follow-on civilian industries.
No one doubts the need to address our nation's finances, and no one is saying military spending is immune to cuts. But at just over 1 percent of GDP, defense investments didn't cause our debt, and cutting them more won't fix it. After almost a trillion dollars in canceled programs, "efficiency" savings, and debt-ceiling cuts already under way, we've already cut defense enough -- and perhaps too far as facilities like the Joint Forces Command shut down and talk of base closures or moving an aircraft carrier out of Norfolk further dampen investment and growth.
Unless Congress acts, the sequestration hammer will fall in less than 8 months, tying an anchor around the neck of our economy just as we are finally swimming to shore. Such cuts might be one small step forward for deficit reduction, but they'd be 10 giant steps back for our national and economic strength.
Cord Sterling is a former member of the Virginia National Defense Industrial Base, vice president of Aerospace Industries Association, and former military advisor to U.S. Sen. John Warner while he was chairman of the Senate Arms Services Committee.