The Drum (ABC Online)

By Adam Lockyer

This week, the United States Congress appears set to announce that its "supercommittee" has not been able to find agreement on measures to reduce the deficit.

If the supercommitee does not reach agreement, then a sequestration measure takes effect. This has become known as the "doomsday" mechanism.

The triggering of sequestration will result in automatic and deep cuts from many US Federal agencies, but the Department of Defence will be particularly heavily hit.

What will this mean? In addition to the $450 billion already levied earlier this year, DoD will have its budget reduced by an additional $500-600 billion over the coming decade. These combined cuts represent a 20 per cent reduction in America's defence spending. This is cutting, not with a scalpel, but with a blunt instrument.

Reductions of this magnitude will have major geopolitical ramifications, not all of which are bad.

Let's start with the bad news. Under sequestration, the size of the US military will have to be substantially reduced. Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, believes that a 20 per cent reduction in defence spending will result in smallest ground force since 1940, a fleet of fewer than 230 ships, the smallest number since 1915, and the smallest tactical fighter force in the history of the Air Force.

New procurement problems will have to be scaled back or terminated. The program to replace to the B-1B bomber will be terminated with an eye to restart it in the mid-2020s. The next generation of nuclear submarines, littoral combat ship and ground combat vehicle will all be delayed or terminated. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program will be significantly scaled back, if not cancelled. This will have major consequences for Australia. Australia has committed to buy 100 JSF to replace our aging fleet of F-111s and F-18s aircraft. If the United States reduces the number of airframes it purchases, this will result in a cost blowout for other buyers, including Australia.

This is far from an exhaustive list. It will be a long time before we see any new major platforms enter US service.

Under sequestration, existing programs have also been flagged for elimination. Most concerning among these, Secretary Panetta has declared that the ICBM arm of Triad will have to be closed to save $8 billion. If this was realised it would mean a major change in US nuclear posture and a significant dent in its second strike capability.

The overall result of these delays, cancelations and eliminations would be a considerable closure in the gap between the US military and its closest rivals. The newest weapons currently entering service of America's "peer" competitors are - broadly speaking - about equal to those being retired from the United States' military. Current procurement programs seek to allow the United States to leap forward again. In most cases this is an entire generation of technology and, in some cases, two generations. Sequestration will bring this to a screeching halt.

Now, for the good news. Sequestration will mean a significant revision to the United States' defence strategy. This is long overdue.

For too long the United States' military has been a protected species in Congress. This pathology has many roots; including effective lobbyists, pork barrelling and the "cult of the uniform" (a legacy of Vietnam where any cut in spending is framed as a lack of support for the troops).

As such, the United States never witnessed the "peace dividend" it was promised at the end of the Cold War. In 2011, defence spending (adjusted for inflation) was only 3 per cent lower than in 1985. When money allocated for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is included, Defence spending is now 11 per cent higher than when Reagan was pumping up the Defence budget and challenging the USSR to keep pace.

As a consequence, there is excessive dead wood in the US strategic posture, personnel, training, and acquisitions. All of which may now finally be addressed.

First, we are likely to see long overdue base closures, especially overseas bases. We can expect the closure (or at least significant scaling back) of American bases in Europe and their replacement with much smaller bases in the Asia-Pacific. This was made clear in US president Obama's speech to the Australian Parliament last week where he declared that "reductions in US defence spending will not - I repeat, will not - come at the expense of the Asia Pacific."

Second, we will probably see major changes to "Tricare", future retirement plans, and the Department of Veterans Affairs more generally. The VA is currently a shambles. It's a tangled web of bureaucratic inefficiencies and redundancies. For too long, Congress has simply put its reform into the "too hard basket".

Finally, as outlined above, major acquisitions will be cut. Many of the programs at the cutting-edge of technology (such as robotics and automation) are necessary and it will be a problem if they are underfunded. But, there are also many archaic Cold War-era programs that are long overdue for termination. For instance, the V-22 Osprey aircraft (a combined helicopter-plane) was commissioned in 1981, first flew in 1987, entered very limited service in 2001 and after twenty years is still officially under development. Thus far, the V-22 has cost $27 billion.

The final piece of good news is that funding for America's current overseas conflicts comes from a different bag of money, funding for the US forces in Afghanistan, and the remaining forces in Iraq, will not be directly impacted by sequestration.

The United States military budget is overdue for a diet. Similarly, American defence planning has been sluggish to respond to new strategic realities - such as the power shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific. A shake-up was necessary. However, it remains troubling that these changes may have to be imposed in such a brutal and indiscriminate manner.

Adam Lockyer is a lecturer in US politics and foreign policy at the United States Studies Centre, the University of Sydney.