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Forget “War Footing”; Can We Handle Peacetime?

It hasn’t gotten much notice, but President Obama’s State of the Union included the following pledge: “Here at home, we’ll keep strengthening our defenses and combat new threats like cyberattacks. And as we reform our defense budget, we have to keep faith with our men and women in uniform and invest in the capabilities they need to succeed in future missions.”

What the speech didn’t include was any mention of the defense budget, which makes the above pledge ring hollow. On the president’s watch Congress, with his approval, has implemented defense budget cuts that will eliminate roughly a trillion dollars in planned spending on the armed forces over the next decade. The recently passed budget deal negotiated by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray puts back a small amount of defense funding in the next two years–roughly $40 billion. But that’s a drop in the bucket of the overall deluge in budget cuts, which threaten to drown our military readiness.

A couple of news items this morning show what such cuts mean in practice.

Item #1: The Breaking Defense website reports that the Navy is down to 10 carriers even thought there is currently a demand for 15 carriers. The Navy has been trying to make up the gap by deploying carriers longer than ever at sea. “But,” the article notes, “the price was high: extra-long deployments, stressed-out crews, and overworked ships requiring extensive and expensive unplanned maintenance. Now the Navy has decided it just cannot get as much work out of the carriers it has — just as the budget cuts known as sequestration may leave it with fewer carriers.” That’s right, the Navy may never get back to its planned end-strength of 11 carriers, much less the 15 it really needs–and it may not even be able to afford 10.

Item #2: Military Times reports the Army “will likely flirt with being reduced to around 400,000 soldiers for the first time since before World War II.”

Similar cuts are being undertaken by the Air Force and Marine Corps.

In short, our military capacity is being greatly reduced–and the situation is even worse than it should be because, as Mackenzie Eaglen notes, Congress is frustrating Pentagon efforts to close more bases and cut back on the generous benefits being paid to veterans. Ballooning personnel costs, especially in health care, mean that even more must be cut from the funds needed for procurement, training, operations, and maintenance–and that translates into a looming, or perhaps already existent, readiness crisis.

Yet President Obama did not even mention this issue in the State of the Union. Instead he declared that “America must move off a permanent war footing.” That conjured up images of the U.S. demobilizing after the massive buildup of World War II when defense spending was over 37 percent of GDP and over 89 percent of the federal budget. Today the figures are, respectively, under 4 percent and under 20 percent–and falling fast. We are not, by any stretch, on a “war footing” today. Soon, if the current trajectory continues, we will not even be able to respond to the demands of peacetime military deployments, much less to fight a future war.


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