DeM Banter: …what could possibly go wrong?
View Original / NY Times / 19 Nov 2013
SIMI VALLEY, Ca. – The four-star commander of all Air Force combat jets earned an audible gasp from the audience of national security specialists with his disclosure about American vulnerabilities brought on by the spending stalemate back in Washington.
Over the summer, the Air Force grounded its combat squadrons as Congress and the White House argued over the budget, and money ran out for flying hours. Only warplanes assigned to front-line operations – over Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, for example, or around the Korean Peninsula – were given a full ration of fuel and munitions and kept aloft.
Things got so bad that on one particular day, July 17, the entire Air Force had only eight warplanes ready and available beyond those already committed to critical missions. Had there been an unexpected crisis at home or anywhere else around the world, that’s all – eight jets – that could have been scrambled in emergency response.
The nation “dodged a bullet,” Gen. Gilmary Michael Hostage III, the Air Combat Command commander, said. The world stayed quiet, or at least quiet enough. While flying hours remain reduced, money has since been found for some squadrons to resume training.
That theme of self-inflicted wounds to military readiness animated a conference on security challenges this weekend at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library here.
Some in government and in the military have taken to saying that the world has never been more dangerous than today, though many would say things were far perilous during the Cold War when the United States and Soviet Union stumbled toward the brink of nuclear war.
What seems less debatable is that the lack of a federal budget has hamstrung the Defense Department’s ability to carry out missions across the world. That fact, combined with the wide array of threats posed by adversary nations and terrorists have created a national security challenge “as complex as any ever facing the nation,” said Eric S. Edelman, a former Pentagon under secretary for policy.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel offered a direct appeal to lift sequestration, just one month before the next deadline for budget negotiators. The Army, Mr. Hagel said, has just two of its 43 active-brigades ready and available for major combat operations. The Navy’s global presence is down 10 percent. And Marine Corps units, other than those preparing for duty in Afghanistan, are getting 30 percent less funding.
Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, underscored the point during his keynote address to the conference. He said the Pentagon knew it must accept reduced spending. But he warned that the steep, automatic budget cuts called sequestration are the wrong way to trim the Pentagon budget because they don’t give the Defense Department and military the ability to spend a smaller budget in the smartest way.
On the question of reduced readiness, General Dempsey said the military would respond to any challenge and march off to any order from the president. “The ‘Fight Tonight’ forces will remain ready,” he said. “But we’ll have less depth.”
The loss of depth in the combat ranks means that any conflict fought under current budget constraints would be longer and riskier – and would entail more casualties, General Dempsey warned. And he rejected those who predict the nation will not face off against a major adversary in the foreseeable future, saying that the United States has, throughout history, never accurately predicted the next war.
“There is hubris in the belief that war can be controlled,” General Dempsey said. “War punishes hubris.”
The military may be forced by budget cuts to “do less,” General Dempsey said. “But we can’t do it less well.” He said the nation owed its troops sufficient money to remain an overwhelming effective fighting force to outgun any adversary. “We must never accept a fair fight,” he said.
The sequester cuts, he said, are forcing the Pentagon to “accrue greater risk and consume readiness” at the exact time the military needs to be rekindling a broad array of combat skills after a decade focused solely on the counterinsurgency wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
General Dempsey said the military had accepted the challenge of limiting the cost of personnel and their benefits that, together, are pushing above 50 percent of the Pentagon budget. But he said the Pentagon needed leeway from Congress to do it right and do it once, and not whittle away at the problem year after year, bowing to pressure from Capitol Hill and lobbyists who want to preserve those benefits.
The budget problem in Washington has made allies less ready to cooperate, according to Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon comptroller under President George W. Bush. He said that while the emerging new national security policy called for fewer American boots on the ground in foreign countries, Washington’s allies were worried.
Characterizing what he has heard from international leaders, Mr. Zakheim said he was constantly asked: “ ‘What’s up with you people? How can we rely on you?’ They don’t trust us.”
Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who serves on the Armed Services Committee, said a downward budget had done more than injure the military’s “premium on readiness.” He said it had increased a requirement to define America’s role in the world.
“Do we want to be able to shape the environment, or do we want to be prepared to react to it?” asked Mr. Reed, a West Point graduate who served in the Army Rangers. “Can we afford to shape the world – or can we afford not to?”