Just as political gridlock looked certain to cement historic changes to the U.S. military, Syria happens
Like a live grenade thrown into a munitions storage room, a vote in Congress on President Barack Obama's proposal for limited U.S. military strikes on Syria's dictatorial regime is quickly gaining the potential to reshape the budget-battle-scarred landscape of U.S. defense and intelligence decision-making, possibly for years to come.
The catch: No matter how lawmakers vote, the fact the debate is taking place on Capitol Hill as the federal government races toward the beginning of fiscal 2014 on Oct. 1 and its all-but-certain budget constraints is forcing many in Congress to confront the implications of recent deficit-fighting decisions and indecisions faster than most expected. While the results are far from clear, the Syria issue's interplay with another round of automatic sequestration budget cuts due under the 2011 Budget Control Act's spending caps has opened up outcomes that affect aerospace and defense in ways that were until recently, unimaginable.
“The president's move added several new branches to the Syria decision tree for defense investors,” says Capital Alpha Partners analyst Byron Callan.
“Think of this as a federal budget debate get-out-of-jail-free card,” says Stan Collender, a former staffer on both House and Senate Budget committees and now a partner at Qorvis Communications.
In late July,officials unveiled stark options for reshaping the military under the full effect of the budget law, which mandates almost across-the-board cuts if Congress does not appropriate money to individual programs within its budget caps on its own or rewrite the budget law, neither of which is expected (AW&ST Aug. 5/12, p. 21).
Now with potential Syrian strikes, the possibilities become more complicated. The first scenario is that Congress approves and the president executes a limited strike of 200-300 cruise missiles, like the Tomahawk Land-attack Missile (TLAM). “We appreciate views that there may be a 'rally-around-the-flag' mood in Washington, but a strike that uses 10% of the TLAM inventory on hand is not going to place new pressures on defense, and the action in Syria may not reshape or diminish the fiscal 2014 sequestration cut,” Callan says of this option.
If Congress votes against strikes, but Obama goes ahead, the ensuing debate—which is likely to get into constitutional matters and even calls for impeachment by tea party legislators—could consume time otherwise spent examining the Pentagon's choices, and Congress might place further restraints on use of military force, as well, Callan explains. But the most interesting outcome would be if Obama followed congressional rejection and did not strike Syria. “One reaction to this would be a confirmation that a libertarian-liberal block in Congress is reshaping U.S. national security policy,” he says, making currently mandated cuts to the defense budget permanent and a far cry from even a few years ago.
Still some A&D sectors—like ballistic missile defense—could ultimately see a boost. If U.S. inaction emboldens Iran and its suspected nuclear program, or North Korea's, then missile defenses could be sought by their neighbors. “Another by-product might be an accelerated move by Saudi Arabia [or] other regional states to acquire nuclear weapons and associated delivery systems in anticipation that Iran's program will proceed unhindered,” Callan says.
If limited TLAM strikes are approved, Collender posits, the Syria debate makes a stop-gap funding measure and debt-ceiling deal likelier, assuming far right or left opposition is overridden by most other U.S. lawmakers. That would set the stage for another budget showdown for mid-November. And with Syrian operations possibly a memory by then, it does not indicate changes to the current trajectory of budget forecasts. “Syria doesn't mean that the military-spending sequester will be canceled,” Collender says. “Anyone hoping or just assuming that U.S. actions in Syria mean additional funds for the Pentagon will be extremely disappointed.”
But that is not stopping some lawmakers from trying. Amid a flurry of explanations last week on their planned votes, a few defense hawks have begun to tie their opposition to cuts to the Pentagon's current budget. “We know this could be open-ended; we know that an attack on Syria could have repercussions on Israel; but no one is talking about the decimation of our military,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe (Okla.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“I also find it concerning that the president is again seeking to use military power even while he has accepted nearly a trillion dollars in cuts from our national defense over the last four years,” said Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.). “The president's willingness to use our military without ensuring that it is properly funded should alarm all who view the maintenance of unparalleled American military power as a principal constitutional duty of our commander in chief.”
Shadowing everything is the political calendar. With elections for control of Congress in 2014, analysts say any deal on defense, the budget and debt ceiling has to occur this year.