From MX to PX: Pentagon goes to the heartstrings with sequester warnings

In November 2011, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta sent a letter to Congress warning that sequestration would require the Pentagon to cut, among other things, one of the three legs of the so-called nuclear triad of intercontinental ballistic missiles, attack submarines, or long-range bombers that can deliver the doomsday weapons.

On Monday, the first business day since sequestration finally began, Pentagon press secretary George Little warned that if sequestration continues, sometime next month all 247 military commissaries around the world would have to shut down one day a week. Additionally, teachers at DOD schools for military children would be subject to job furloughs. Also, the military is curbing its air shows.

What happened to the once-dramatic warnings of sequestration’s effects on actual national security? For some, they were wiped away on Friday, when new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel assured the public that the Pentagon would be able to protect the nation through this “unnecessary” political standoff between Democrats and Republicans.

The Obama administration seems to be deploying a new argument for its first post-sequester message bomb: Since images of abandoned missile silos didn't seem to work, cue the clips the schoolchildren of deployed troops, their teachers locked out of their jobs, and their poor, young military mothers pushing shopping carts through government-run grocery stores in search of slightly discount-priced diapers and ground beef.

Don't laugh. If the specter of nuclear disarmament can’t move John Boehner and Gene Sperling, skeptics think military spouses just might.

Mieke Eoyang, director of Third Way's national security program and a former intelligence and defense policy staffer on Capitol Hill, recalls working on the Hill during the 1995 government shutdown. Republicans, she argued, were blindsided by its effects only after letting it happen.

“I don’t think they realized how bad it was going to be,” she said.

Today, with the current sequester cuts there are real national security concerns, Eoyang said, like holding back the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier from deploying to the Arabian Gulf. On Friday, Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned Army training and Air Force flying hours would immediately be curtailed, but offered no specifics.

Yet, since nearly every defense account must take a hit, the realities of those cuts are just starting to creep out. The fact that the Pentagon now has shifted its message to things like commissaries, she said, shows how defense and military leaders in the Pentagon believed this day would never come. Even Panetta left office astounded that Congress never cut a deal to avoid sequester, as lawmakers in his heyday always seemed able to do, he said in his parting speeches.

“What I think is sad is it definitely reflects a misplaced faith on the part of the military that the legislators would fix the problem,” Eoyang said.  “I think they were really hoping that Congress would swoop in at the last minute and solve it…. I don’t think they really believed it was going to happen.”

The morning-after realizations have just begun to hit for what it means to Americans when their government-funded programs are cut in the middle of the year, as with DOD schoolteachers being furloughed and on-base grocery stores closing early.

“I think there’s a lot of that going around in the E-Ring today. I mean, ‘Oh my god, really?’”

U.S. Air Force photo by Roland Balik/Released