No one is seriously proposing sending large numbers of U.S. ground forces to Syria (military options are generally limited to the use of airpower and the provision of arms and training to the rebels), but it’s still dismaying to hear General Ray Odierno, the army chief of staff, warn that we will soon lose the ability to send troops even if the president wanted to. Odierno just told reporters, as quoted by Foreign Policy:
“Readiness is OK right now, but it’s degrading significantly because our training is reducing. So, the next three, four months, we probably have the capability to do it,” he said, of a Syrian incursion. “Next year, it becomes a little bit more risky.”
“If you ask me today, we have forces that can go. I think it will change over time because the longer we go cancelling training and reducing our training, the readiness levels go down.”
The culprit, of course, is sequestration—the mindless cuts, amounting to some $500 billion over the next decade, which have gone into effect this year and which Congress refuses to repeal. Sequestration has already caused the cancellation of numerous training exercises and deployments which are needed to keep the armed forces fresh for the challenge of combat. The cost isn’t obvious to civilians—and it won’t be unless troops are sent unprepared into harm’s way or, more subtly, if their lack of readiness forecloses the option of sending troops when needed. Ironically, this much-publicized readiness crisis is no doubt hampering our ability to deter actual or potential foes, and thus making more likely the need to deploy troops on missions for which they are unready.
Just because sequestration is no longer front-page news doesn’t mean it’s not having an impact—it is, and that impact, as Odierno warned, will grow worse over time. If Congress waits too long to act, it may take years to restore readiness back to existing levels. Given how dangerous the world is (think just of North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, and Syria), that is time we don’t have.