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Defense Budget Incoherence

My previous item on the defense budget focused on the Draconian cuts being inflicted on the army. But the army is hardly alone in feeling the pain. To a greater or lesser degree, all of the services are enduring cuts that will impair their ability to carry out their assigned missions–and the pain will get even worse if the sequester is not permanently repealed.

Today Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel outlined the tough choices he is making in the new budget. In addition to cutting the army’s end-strength from 520,000 active-duty personnel today to fewer than 450,000 (a level not seen since 1940), he is proposing to:

* Eliminate the A-10 Warthog, the best ground-support aircraft in the Air Force’s inventory, and one whose capabilities will be sorely missed by hard-pressed ground troops under fire.

* Take half of the Navy’s cruiser fleet–11 cruisers–out of service.

* Tenuously maintain a commitment to maintaining 11 aircraft carriers while noting that the funds to retrofit the USS George Washington may not be forthcoming in future years, so the likelihood is that the Navy will shrink to 10 carriers–even though current operating requirements call for 15.

* Cut the Marine Corps from 190,000 to 182,000 Marines.

Keep in mind, that’s a best-case scenario. Hagel also outlined what would happen if sequestration remains in effect after 2015–spelling out for the first time the dire consequences of even greater cuts. What are those consequences?

* “The Air Force would have to retire 80 more aircraft, including the entire KC-10 tanker fleet and the Global Hawk Block 40 fleet, as well as slow down purchases of the Joint Strike Fighter – resulting in 24 fewer F-35s purchased through Fiscal Year 2019 – and sustain ten fewer Predator and Reaper 24-hour combat air patrols. The Air Force would also have to take deep cuts to flying hours, which would prevent a return to adequate readiness levels.”

* “The active-duty Army would have to draw down to an end strength of 420,000 soldiers.”

* “Six additional ships would have to be laid up, and we would have to slow the rate at which we buy destroyers. The net result of sequestration-level cuts would be ten fewer large surface combatant ships in the Navy’s operational inventory by 2023. Under sequestration spending levels, the Navy would also halt procurement of the carrier variant of the Joint Strike Fighter for two years.”

* “The Marines would have to shrink further to 175,000.”

In short, bad as the current budget is, it could get a whole lot worse.

I don’t blame Hagel, who is doing the best with the bad hand he has been dealt. I do blame President Obama and the bipartisan leadership of Congress who have refused to make hard choices on entitlement programs–the real cause of our fiscal woes–and instead are taking the “easy” way out, by gutting our defense capabilities.

Does any of this matter? You bet it does.

I hear many doves suggesting that we don’t face major threats to our security today and can afford to cut defense spending even more. We’ve heard that before–and history, as I have noted, has always shown the folly of such Panglossian thinking.

In fact the world is a more chaotic place than ever and we face the need to respond to a multiplicity of threats, from pirates and terrorists and narco-traffickers to rogue states like Iran and North Korea to potential great power rivals such as China and Russia to failed states such as Yemen and Syria. And not only do we have to be able to project power in traditional ways, but we also have to be able to protect new domains such as outer space and cyberspace.

Certainly the operating tempo for the U.S. military remains as high as ever. There is no decrease in the number of missions the men and women in uniform must carry out–or the number of contingencies they must prepare for. All that’s being cut are the resources they need to get the job done. Only in Washington does this looming imbalance between ends and means add up to a coherent strategic vision.



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