Serious talk on sequestration

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Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base, knew his mission on a recent night at The Broadmoor. He was the guest speaker for The Home Front Cares’ annual fundraising dinner, helping the 10-year-old nonprofit in support of local military members, particularly those families affected by deployment.

Shelton talked eloquently about the unseen impacts of repeated deployments, just as he described the Space Command’s many functions, operating the worldwide GPS system out of Schriever Air Force Base or monitoring even the smallest space debris (“down to 4 inches in size”) stuck in orbit around the Earth.

But the four-star general, who also happens to be a 1976 Air Force Academy graduate, had an additional topic for this attentive audience — sequestration.

He knew he wasn’t speaking to a congressional committee, but he realized Colorado Springs folks would comprehend his concern.

The word coming out of Washington has been that the next budget negotiations, facing a mid-December deadline set in the recent deal to reopen the government and avert default, will address sequestration and specifically its effect on the military. But with no guarantees. Already, the first round of across-the-board 10 percent cuts has taken place this year. If nothing happens soon, the Pentagon will face more full-scale spending cuts in 2014 and for several more years thereafter.

As Gen. Shelton put it, speaking of the massive operations for missile warning, GPS and other systems, in his words, there already is “no reserve in orbit, and no stockpile on the ground — the status quo is not going to be the answer for us in the future.”

Shelton insisted, with strong information to back up his assessments, that the Space Command is doing what it can to tighten expenses in its vital programs. “We need to lower the cost of launches and reaching space,” he said. “We have to improve our game.” That means even while continuing to raise the bar, such as an ongoing project to build a high-performance computer operation unlike anything the world has seen.

“The status quo is not going to be the answer for us in the future.”

But when the subject turns to cyber security, Shelton doesn’t see cost-cutting as an option. Literally millions of hackers everywhere, he said, are “trying to get probes into” our military’s computers every day. So while some areas of the military might be scaling back, the Cyber Command has added more than 1,000 positions. Yet, if sequestration isn’t stopped, the cutbacks will hit there as well.

“There’s no argument that we need to reduce the deficit,” Shelton said. “But the Budget Control Act says we have to cut every line item. I’m out of tricks. I don’t know how to continue providing our full suite of services.

“We should be OK for 2014. But if sequestration continues any longer, it doesn’t look good for ’15.”

That’s a sobering outlook, and Shelton had another candid description of how the Space Command is approaching the constant battles against outside threats from the cyber world as well as space.

“We build just enough, just in time,” Shelton said, which doesn’t sound like a strategy to maintain superiority, and security, for America’s long-range future.

In fact, it makes us wish Gen. Shelton and other top generals could convey that message personally to all of those in Congress who think long-term sequestration isn’t such a bad idea.

It’s more than a bad idea. It’s frightening.