Sequestration of the defense budget is a bad policy idea. However, living in denial about the need to prepare for sequestration is nearly as bad. Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), repeatedly reminded military officials last year: "They are obligated to plan for the worst-case scenario. They will not wait until December 2012 in hopes that things get better." However, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta directed the armed services not to plan for how sequestration could be implemented for over a year, noting, "I can't plan for something that was designed to be crazy."
In fact, the military is actually pretty good at developing worst-case contingency response plans for any number of foreseeable or crazy crises, using the operations -- or "3" -- planning staffs at combatant commands and in the Joint Staff. But the Pentagon's budgetary and programmatic managers did not plan in advance of sequestration, and now they find themselves scrambling to finish the job. In September, Defense Department comptroller Robert Hale said, "We will wait as long as we can to begin this process." Last week, he defended the lack of planning: "If we'd done this six months ago, we would have caused the degradation in productivity and morale that we're seeing now among our civilians." History will judge whether or not the Pentagon gambled correctly, if the already once-delayed sequestration is triggered as scheduled this Friday.
Instead of planning, Pentagon officials seemed to all reach for their thesauri after the Budget Control Act was passed in August 2011. Civilian and military officials have used a range of colorful terms to decry the joint-White House-Congress manufactured crisis of sequestration: "doomsday mechanism," "fiscal castration," "peanut butter," "stupid," "gun to their heads," "nuts," "irrational," "an indiscriminate formula," "worst possible outcome," "legislative madness," "devastating," "shameful," "reckless," and "absolutely disastrous." During what was supposed to be his final overseas trip -- before Senate Republicans delayed Chuck Hagel's confirmation process -- Panetta's staff appropriately gifted him a plastic meat axe, his favorite metaphor for graphically describing how sequestration would be applied across defense budget.