There are good reasons, perhaps, that the White House released a 2014 budget today that did not include the full $55 billion in cuts to base Defense Department spending mandated by the 2011 debt-ceiling deal. Perhaps Congress will find a way around sequestration. Perhaps the military brass has a secret Plan B in hand in case the budget ax drops. Perhaps Secretary Chuck Hagel will sell off $600 hammers from a van behind the Pentagon.
The most reasonable explanation is that the military feared that submitting a budget showing it could handle trimming an additional 10 percent would make it easier for Congress to consider those savings a fait accompli. Problem is, even if a sequestration deal is accomplished, it still seems likely the Pentagon is going to have to find cuts in the neighborhood of an extra $500 billion over a decade as part of any long-term deficit-reduction deal.
The Pentagon tried the same game last year as the sequestration deadline approached: Then-Secretary Leon Panetta, insisting that sequestration was such an "unacceptable risk" to U.S. security, refused to admit he was even planning for it. What most observers assumed was a bluff turned out to be pretty much accurate -- after Congress failed to seal a deal, the Pentagon and its contractors were left scrambling to find ways to make the numbers work.
If the Defense Department truly has no contingency blueprint, that's a failure on the level of what we saw in Iraq after Saddam Hussein fell. Hagel should leave the bluffing to Kim Jong Un and tell us how he's going to create a leaner fighting machine. This budget included a couple of good first steps: another round of base-closure commissions and dropping all spending on the unnecessary Medium Extended Air Defense System. But he needs to consider bigger targets, including one 20 stories high: the Ford-class supercarrier.
(Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @tobinharshaw.)