It has gotten pretty much zero press attention, but last week the congressionally mandated National Defense Panel issued what should have been seen as a bombshell review of American military readiness, or lack thereof. The bipartisan credentials of the board members cannot be doubted. The panel was co-chaired by Clinton-era Defense Secretary Bill Perry and retired General John Abizaid. Members included both Bush-era Defense Department appointees such as Eric Edelman and Obama-era successors such as Michele Flournoy. The only thing uniting the members of the panel was deep knowledge of, and interest in, defense policy.
Such a group might be expected to endorse the status quo as the lowest-common-denominator option. But that’s not what they did. Instead they issued a blistering denunciation of the impact that budget cuts–amounting to a trillion dollars over 10 years–are having on the armed forces. These cuts, they warned, “constitute a serious strategic misstep on the part of the United States. Not only have they caused significant investment shortfalls in U.S. military readiness and both present and future capabilities, they have prompted our current and potential allies and adversaries to question our commitment and resolve. Unless reversed, these shortfalls will lead to a high risk force in the near future. That in turn will lead to an America that is not only less secure but also far less prosperous.”
The panel identified “disturbing” and “dangerous” gaps between the “capabilities and capacities” called for under the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review and the actual “budget resources made available to the [Defense] Department.” Specifically the panel determined that both the Navy and Air Force need to grow and the Army and Marine Corps should not shrink as much as currently envisioned.
The Navy, the panel noted, should have between 323 and 346 ships yet it is currently “on a budgetary path to 260 ships or less.”
The Air Force, the panel found, “now fields the smallest and oldest force of combat aircraft in its history” and that situation is going to get much worse because it is going to lose half of its current inventory of bombers, fighter aircraft, and surveillance aircraft by 2019. The panel called for an increase in “the number of manned and unmanned aircraft capable of conducting both ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] and long range strike in contested airspace.”
The panel also found that currently contemplated reductions in Army end-strength go too far. “We believe the Army and the Marine Corps should not be reduced below their pre-9/11 end strengths–490,000 active-duty soldiers in the Army and 182,000 active Marines,” the panel concluded. Yet on the current trajectory the army is likely to wind up with 420,000 soldiers and the Corps with 175,000 marines.
The defense panel rightly warned that “sustaining these significant cuts to our defense budgets will not solve our fiscal woes, but will increasingly jeopardize our international defense posture and ultimately damage our security, prospects for economic growth, and other interests.”
But no one in Washington, on either side of the aisle, seems to care. All Republicans seem to care about anymore is avoiding tax hikes. All that Democrats seem to care about anymore is avoiding cuts in entitlement programs. Whatever happened to the parties of Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy? They seem to be as gone as those presidents. And America is going to pay the price unless we see some leadership on defense issues at the top of our political system on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.