Foreign Policy Blogs

GailForce: The Defense Department and the “Fiscal Cliff”

A few years ago, while being interviewed on a radio show, I was asked what I thought of President Bush.  I reminded the host that while in the military the President was my Commander-in-Chief.  I said my views of the President were probably similar to many employees in other professions.  Some things the President did I liked and some I didn’t, but the bottom line for me was as long as I wasn’t asked to do anything illegal, I followed the famous advice given by General Colin Powell — I told my bosses if I objected to a particular course of action; if they didn’t agree with me, I saluted smartly and executed the plan as if it were my own idea.  I then went on to state the only President I served under in my 28 years I didn’t like was President Carter.  Since the host obviously wanted me to trash then President Bush, he cut me off before I could explain why.

If I had been allowed to explain it was a pretty simple reason.  Several times during Carter’s Presidency I and other military members were not paid.  I’ve long forgotten the details, but it had something to do with budget battles.  Like most junior military people, I was pretty much living paycheck to paycheck.  I had a small amount in the bank that allowed me to at least be able to afford to buy inexpensive food.  My command made efforts to contact charity organizations like Navy Relief to get funds for the married folks, but I and other single folks were put on the back burner. I guess my chain of command hoped the situation would be solved soon and felt single folks didn’t need as much money to live on.  There came a day when my rent was due and I had no money to pay it.  I finally got some help when I stormed into my boss’s office with all the arrogance of a girl born and raised in New Jersey and told him if I didn’t get some financial help I wasn’t going to come into work the next day.

Thankfully, my boss liked me and instead of throwing me in a military jail, he calmed me down.  The government got their act together fairly quickly and all was well again.  I was angry with then President Carter because I expected better from someone who had gone to the Naval Academy and spent a considerable amount of time as an active duty Navy officer.    I had hoped he would better understand what happens if a military member was not paid.  It was also the only time I ever heard large numbers of military people screaming we needed to unionize to protect our rights.

This brings me to the subject at hand.  As I sit and write this, there is still government gridlock on the budget.  I say government because it is not just a congressional problem, but in my opinion, a leadership failure on many fronts.  No matter what one’s political persuasion, I suspect many might share my view of when we vote for a candidate we expect them to keep the government functional.  I understand it means compromise on some issues but I don’t expect a government shut down or following a course of action the economic gurus say will push us back into recession.

What happens to the Defense Department if we go over the fiscal cliff?  In an article written by Charles Clark on 30 December he stated the following:

“Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned that the department could send out 800,000 furlough notices, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on Fox News Sunday.

Defense sequester cuts would “severely constrain resources for housing, training and equipping the troops,” according to an October letter to fellow lawmakers from Rep. Norman Dicks, D-Wash., ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee. It would “slow plans to modernize the helicopter fleet, impair the fielding of electronic warfare capabilities, make it more difficult to avoid a carrier-based strike fighter shortfall, slow efforts to field new surveillance aircraft, and disrupt the schedule of military space launches,” he said.

The Homeland Security Department would lose more than 24,500 jobs, including 3,400 Border Patrol agents; 3,400 Customs and Border Protection officers; and 7,200 Transportation Security Administration officers, according to Dicks’ analysis.”

The only good news in all of this is maybe I won’t have to worry about being frisked by TSA when I return home to Colorado next week, but I digress.  I’ll end with a question?  Does the current government really want to maintain our military as the number one in the world?  In the past, our nation has downsized the military after wars have ended.  The only thing about it from my point of view is the wars have not ended.  We’re still fighting the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, cyber warriors, and Somali Pirates.  North Korea has just had a successful missile launch and the Iranians are currently conducting exercises in the Persian Gulf. There are also many other things going on with our forces that are “below the radar” of regular media coverage.

Think I’ll end here.  I’m visiting my 85-years-young mom.  Part of my holiday routine is to sit down and watch her favorite TV soap opera, Days of Our Lives, together.  Maybe that will get my mind off of things for an hour or two.  As always, my views are my own.


  • J. T. Coyne

    Hi Gail,
    Happy New Year. Great post, as usual. I’m not happy with the whole “cliff” issue. Once again our Gov. waited until the 12th hour to do nothing.
    I feel for the young troops. They do not deserve to wait for pay or to have the uncertainty of personnel cuts.
    Safe travel home!


Gail Harris
Gail Harris

Gail Harris’ 28 year career in intelligence included hands-on leadership during every major conflict from the Cold War to El Salvador to Desert Storm to Kosovo and at the forefront of one of the Department of Defense’s newest challenges, Cyber Warfare. A Senior Fellow for The Truman National Security Project, her memoir, A Woman’s War, published by Scarecrow Press is available on