Commentary Magazine


Topic: defense budget

The Enemy Still Gets a Vote

A few days ago I noted that the current defense budget, which cuts all the services and the Army most of all, is predicated on wishful assumptions. Such Pollyannaish thinking is exemplified in this New York Times editorial backing the defense cuts.

The sages of the Times sanguinely opine: “The country is tired of large-scale foreign occupations and, in any case, Pentagon planners do not expect they will be necessary in the foreseeable future.”

Well, that settles it: If the people of America don’t want to engage in “large-scale foreign occupations” and if Pentagon planners don’t expect any such occupations in the future–then they won’t occur. Perhaps while we’re at it we can get rid of the entire Defense Department on the assumption that America will never be involved in wars in the future because we don’t like to fight them.

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A few days ago I noted that the current defense budget, which cuts all the services and the Army most of all, is predicated on wishful assumptions. Such Pollyannaish thinking is exemplified in this New York Times editorial backing the defense cuts.

The sages of the Times sanguinely opine: “The country is tired of large-scale foreign occupations and, in any case, Pentagon planners do not expect they will be necessary in the foreseeable future.”

Well, that settles it: If the people of America don’t want to engage in “large-scale foreign occupations” and if Pentagon planners don’t expect any such occupations in the future–then they won’t occur. Perhaps while we’re at it we can get rid of the entire Defense Department on the assumption that America will never be involved in wars in the future because we don’t like to fight them.

Of course that argument sounds silly–even if it once sounded rational enough in the 1920s when the Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war, the proud achievement of the Coolidge administration, was signed. But if it’s silly to expect that wars will cease, it is only marginally less silly to expect that whatever wars we confront can be dealt with by a small force–with an army at its smallest size since 1940–augmented by “Mr. Hagel’s proposed increase in investment in special operations, cyberwarfare and rebalancing the American presence in Asia.”

If only America’s enemies would cooperate with the assumptions held by the Obama administration and the New York Times, then everything will work out just fine. But the nature of enemies is that they operate on different assumptions and seek to exploit vulnerabilities when they occur. And, make no mistake, being unprepared to fight a major conventional war–much less two conventional wars, the strategic construct which governed force structure for decades–creates a major vulnerability, whether we want to prepare for occupations or not.

What is truly alarming and hilarious is the trust that the Times editorialists place in “Pentagon planners”–trust which is not forthcoming from the Times when it comes to how the military deals with sexual abuse, gay rights, or other hot-button social issues, or when the military asks for a large force commitment to execute counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. When it suits its assumptions, however, the Times apparently believes “Pentagon planners” are infallible.

As it happens, however, the Times is confusing and conflating “administration political appointees” with “Pentagon planners.” Sure, some officers in the Pentagon believe that the era of ground wars and occupations has passed. They’re by and large in the Air Force and Navy–services that are desperate to take resources away from the Army in a time of declining budgets. But few Marine or Army officers believe that the era of ground wars and occupations has passed; they’re simply not being vocal about their real views because they’ve been told to do so would be seen as an act of disloyalty by the administration.

Even if there were unanimity among “Pentagon planners,” those planners could easily be wrong. How many of them anticipated in the 1950s America’s involvement in a big ground war in Vietnam? How many anticipated in the 1990s (the decade of high-tech “network centric” warfare) major ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? As former defense secretary Bob Gates has accurately warned:

When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more — we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged.

The upshot of Gates’s remarks is that we need to prepare for a wide array of contingencies–something that the current budget cuts make impossible. Alas Gates’s wisdom is being disregarded on Capitol Hill, at the White House, in the Pentagon–and now in the headquarters of the New York Times.

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Obama Consciously Engineering America’s Decline

In remarks today, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said U.S. global military dominance can “no longer be taken for granted.” He said this even as he was in the process of announcing that the Obama administration plans to shrink the United States Army to its smallest force since before the World War II buildup. (For context, the Army will go from a post-September 11 peak of 570,000 to between 440,000 and 450,000, the smallest Army since 1940.)

Max Boot does an excellent job laying out the problems with this proposal here and here. I’d simply add that the fact that American military dominance can no longer be taken for granted is not problematic for someone of Barack Obama’s worldview. In fact, he views the weakening of American power as a downright positive thing, as a contributor to peace and stability, and a means through which America will be more respected and loved in the world. 

Mr. Obama is wrong on every count. But in a sense it’s not at all surprising that the president would hold these views, given the academic and intellectual milieu he comes from. Liberals like Mr. Obama don’t view America as particularly exceptional. They think “leading from behind” is just what America ought to do and where America ought to be. Mr. Obama, then, isn’t any different than your run-of-the-mill man of the left.

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In remarks today, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said U.S. global military dominance can “no longer be taken for granted.” He said this even as he was in the process of announcing that the Obama administration plans to shrink the United States Army to its smallest force since before the World War II buildup. (For context, the Army will go from a post-September 11 peak of 570,000 to between 440,000 and 450,000, the smallest Army since 1940.)

Max Boot does an excellent job laying out the problems with this proposal here and here. I’d simply add that the fact that American military dominance can no longer be taken for granted is not problematic for someone of Barack Obama’s worldview. In fact, he views the weakening of American power as a downright positive thing, as a contributor to peace and stability, and a means through which America will be more respected and loved in the world. 

Mr. Obama is wrong on every count. But in a sense it’s not at all surprising that the president would hold these views, given the academic and intellectual milieu he comes from. Liberals like Mr. Obama don’t view America as particularly exceptional. They think “leading from behind” is just what America ought to do and where America ought to be. Mr. Obama, then, isn’t any different than your run-of-the-mill man of the left.

What is different is that Barack Obama isn’t on the faculty of Columbia; he’s commander in chief of the United States. Which means that his misguided views are downright pernicious. And for all the damage the president is doing on the domestic side–and I would not want to underestimate it for a moment–it may be the harm he’s inflicting on America in foreign policy and national security is deeper, broader, and more durable. 

More than any president in my lifetime, Barack Obama has damaged virtually everything he’s touched. When it comes to American interests, he’s a one-man wrecking ball. 

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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:

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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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The Defense Budget vs. History

Traditionally, military planners have operated under a worst-case scenario: i.e., what do we need to have in place to respond if nothing goes as planned? The Obama administration and Congress appear to be operating under a best-case scenario: i.e., what is the minimum force we can field on the assumption that nothing will go terribly wrong?

Thus the new defense budget, being unveiled today, which cuts the army’s active-duty force size to the smallest level since before World War II–just 440,000 to 450,000 soldiers. That’s down from a wartime high of 570,000, although even that figure was painfully inadequate to allow the U.S. to respond to two unforeseen wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As critics of the Bush administration–including Senator Barack Obama–were once fond of pointing out, Bush never sent enough troops to stabilize Iraq until 2007 and that commitment was only made possible by keeping a ludicrously small force in Afghanistan, once known as the “necessary” war. The failure to send more troops early on allowed the Taliban to rebound from near-defeat in 2001 and allowed various insurgent groups to sprout all over Iraq.

So if 570,000 troops were not enough to handle such relatively weak foes as al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban, how on earth would 440,000 troops be able to handle more robust contingencies–unlikely but not impossible–such as simultaneous wars with Iran and North Korea and a stabilization mission in, say, Yemen? The answer is that they couldn’t.

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Traditionally, military planners have operated under a worst-case scenario: i.e., what do we need to have in place to respond if nothing goes as planned? The Obama administration and Congress appear to be operating under a best-case scenario: i.e., what is the minimum force we can field on the assumption that nothing will go terribly wrong?

Thus the new defense budget, being unveiled today, which cuts the army’s active-duty force size to the smallest level since before World War II–just 440,000 to 450,000 soldiers. That’s down from a wartime high of 570,000, although even that figure was painfully inadequate to allow the U.S. to respond to two unforeseen wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As critics of the Bush administration–including Senator Barack Obama–were once fond of pointing out, Bush never sent enough troops to stabilize Iraq until 2007 and that commitment was only made possible by keeping a ludicrously small force in Afghanistan, once known as the “necessary” war. The failure to send more troops early on allowed the Taliban to rebound from near-defeat in 2001 and allowed various insurgent groups to sprout all over Iraq.

So if 570,000 troops were not enough to handle such relatively weak foes as al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban, how on earth would 440,000 troops be able to handle more robust contingencies–unlikely but not impossible–such as simultaneous wars with Iran and North Korea and a stabilization mission in, say, Yemen? The answer is that they couldn’t.

Actually the situation is even worse than the news would have you believe. Because the army’s plan to cut down to 440,000 to 450,000 is premised on the assumption that Congress will continue to provide relief from half a trillion dollars in sequestration cuts. But the budget deal reached by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray only provides sequestration relief in 2014 and 2015; unless Congress is willing to turn off sequestration in future years, the army will have to go even lower in end-strength.

Moreover, the defense budget includes modest cuts in personnel spending–spending on pay, pensions, and health care–which are long overdue but which are likely to be blocked by Congress, as was the case with a recent attempt to cut cost-of-living adjustments for military retirees by a measly one percent. Unless Congress goes along with cuts to personnel costs, which now constitute half of the defense budget, other parts of the budget–including, no doubt, the army’s end-strength–will have to endure further scaling back.

That is a responsible decline in military strength only if you assume that we will never fight another major land war, or engage in simultaneous stabilization and counterinsurgency operations. And that, in turn, is a tenable assumption only if you assume that the laws of history have been repealed and a new era is dawning in which the U.S. will be able to protect all of its vital interests through drone strikes and commando raids. We all hope that’s the case but, as the saying has it, hope isn’t a strategy. Except, it seems, in Washington defense circles today.

If history teaches anything, it is that the era of land wars is not over and that we will pay a heavy price in the future for our unpreparedness–as we have paid in blood at the beginning of every major war in American history. Our failure to learn from history is stunning and (from a historian’s standpoint) disheartening but not, alas, terribly surprising: Throughout history, supposedly enlightened elites have been able to convince themselves that the era of conflict is over and a new age is dawning. The fact that they have always been wrong before does not, somehow, lead them to question those assumptions in the present day, because this is such a convenient belief to have.

Today, for both Republicans and Democrats, the president and Congress, these hope-based assumptions about defense spending allow them to put off the truly difficult decisions about cutting entitlement spending. But at what cost? If history is any guide, the cost of unpreparedness will be steep and will be borne by future generations of American troops.

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Entitlements Swallowing Up Federal Budget

The news today has been all health care, all the time. And understandably so. But amid the laser-like focus on the Supreme Court ruling  upholding President Obama’s new health care system, it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. Health care is merely the latest in a long line of social welfare expenditures, going all the way back to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which have swallowed up an ever-growing share of the federal budget—and the national economy.

As this useful Heritage Foundation chart shows, entitlement spending first exceeded defense spending in 1976. Ever since, the trend has been getting more lopsided with entitlements taking up ever more of the economy and defense ever less. That gap has become especially pronounced since President Obama took office in 2009. The percentage of GDP going to the federal government grew from 20.7 percent in 2008 to 25.1 percent in 2011 before dipping slightly to 23.2 percent this year. Meanwhile, the state governments are taking another 15 percent, which means that as a total share of the economy the government is now consuming roughly 40 percent, and of that, less than five percent is going to the military.

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The news today has been all health care, all the time. And understandably so. But amid the laser-like focus on the Supreme Court ruling  upholding President Obama’s new health care system, it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. Health care is merely the latest in a long line of social welfare expenditures, going all the way back to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which have swallowed up an ever-growing share of the federal budget—and the national economy.

As this useful Heritage Foundation chart shows, entitlement spending first exceeded defense spending in 1976. Ever since, the trend has been getting more lopsided with entitlements taking up ever more of the economy and defense ever less. That gap has become especially pronounced since President Obama took office in 2009. The percentage of GDP going to the federal government grew from 20.7 percent in 2008 to 25.1 percent in 2011 before dipping slightly to 23.2 percent this year. Meanwhile, the state governments are taking another 15 percent, which means that as a total share of the economy the government is now consuming roughly 40 percent, and of that, less than five percent is going to the military.

We are, in short, becoming more like Europe—and not just because it’s now possible to get tasty croissants and frothy cappuccinos on this side of the Atlantic. In Europe, governments now consume more than 50 percent of GDP. Hence, it is no surprise that few European states are spending even as much as two percent of GDP on defense—the baseline established by NATO for its member states. The Europeans simply can’t afford to spend more on defense without cutting back social welfare programs, which the political class cannot do because it sparks riots in the streets.

This is where we are currently heading—and if ObamaCare survives political as well as legal challenges, with its estimated cost of more than a trillion dollars, we will arrive at this destination all the more quickly. We will simply not be able to pay for our defense as we have been doing. And that will be a calamity. The Europeans could afford to stint on their defense because we protect them. But who will protect us?

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Cuts to State Dept Funding Not Wise

I am deeply concerned that further cuts in the defense budget—never mind the cuts that have already occurred—will leave us a crippled superpower. But I also recognize that the military isn’t the only instrument of power projection that we have or need. The State Department, USAID, and other civilian agencies also do valuable work—not always, but often enough that we should hesitate to cut their funding if we want to remain an active, engaged force for good in the world.

Yet, that is just what the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee is proposing. It wants to cut the State Department and foreign operations budget by more than $5 billion next year, from the $54.7 billion the administration has requested down to $48.4 billion. Obviously, cutting State Department funding is easier for Republicans than cutting the Department of Defense, but it is no wiser as a long-term prescription for America’s future. These types of cuts will do little to address our deep-seated fiscal woes, which require entitlement reform, but they will do much to handicap our ability to influence the world.

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I am deeply concerned that further cuts in the defense budget—never mind the cuts that have already occurred—will leave us a crippled superpower. But I also recognize that the military isn’t the only instrument of power projection that we have or need. The State Department, USAID, and other civilian agencies also do valuable work—not always, but often enough that we should hesitate to cut their funding if we want to remain an active, engaged force for good in the world.

Yet, that is just what the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee is proposing. It wants to cut the State Department and foreign operations budget by more than $5 billion next year, from the $54.7 billion the administration has requested down to $48.4 billion. Obviously, cutting State Department funding is easier for Republicans than cutting the Department of Defense, but it is no wiser as a long-term prescription for America’s future. These types of cuts will do little to address our deep-seated fiscal woes, which require entitlement reform, but they will do much to handicap our ability to influence the world.

This misguided initiative put me in mind of an eloquent passage from Sen. Marco Rubio’s Brookings Institution speech yesterday:

Until very recently, the general perception was that American conservatism believed in a robust and muscular foreign policy. That was certainly the hallmark of the foreign policy of President Reagan, and both President Bush’s. But when I arrived in the Senate last year I found that some of the traditional sides in the foreign policy debate had shifted.

On the one hand, I found liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans working together to advocate our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and staying out of Libya. On the other hand I found myself partnering with Democrats like Bob Menendez and Bob Casey on a more forceful foreign policy. In fact, resolutions that I co-authored with Senator Casey condemning Assad and with Senator Menendez condemning fraudulent elections in Nicaragua were held up by Republicans. I recently joked that today, in the U.S. Senate, on foreign policy, if you go far enough to the right, you wind up on the left.

This is indeed a worrisome trend, and one that Sen. Rubio is right to oppose. Let us hope he will have more company on the right, otherwise short-sighted penny-pinching could convert the 21st century from being the American century into the Chinese century.

 

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The Future of Defense Spending

The Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee have a new chart out today that really clarifies what President Obama’s budget will mean for future national spending priorities. Under Obama’s budget, interest payments on debt will exceed national defense spending by 2019:

The reason for this is that under Obama’s budget, rapidly growing debt would lead to higher interest payments, and substantial cuts to the defense budget would cause defense spending to increase at a slower rate.

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The Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee have a new chart out today that really clarifies what President Obama’s budget will mean for future national spending priorities. Under Obama’s budget, interest payments on debt will exceed national defense spending by 2019:

The reason for this is that under Obama’s budget, rapidly growing debt would lead to higher interest payments, and substantial cuts to the defense budget would cause defense spending to increase at a slower rate.

Incidentally, the House Budget Committee office tells me the same thing doesn’t happen under chairman Paul Ryan’s budget. Here is their chart for comparison:

Under Ryan’s plan, the defense spending and interest payments are actually the inverse of the levels in Obama’s plan by 2022. As you can see, the interest payments still rise with Ryan’s budget, but at a slower pace, while defense spending increases at a healthy rate during the next decade.

This is a prime example of why getting the debt under control is crucial for the future of national security. But under the president’s budget, neither debt reduction nor defense spending are a priority. Liberals have argued that cutting defense is the best way to get the national debt problem under control, but as these two charts show, that’s not the outcome from Obama’s defense cuts. Even with defense reductions, the interest payments still rise faster than under Ryan’s plan.

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Rep. Ryan: “I Misspoke” About the Generals

In an interview with CNN’s Candy Crowley, Rep. Paul Ryan backed away from his comments that questioned whether generals were being honest with Congress by supporting the Obama administration’s defense budget proposal.

Ryan told Crowley that he “misspoke” last week, and said he has called Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and apologized:

“Yes – no, I really misspoke, to be candid with you, Candy. I didn’t mean to make that kind of an impression. So I was clumsy in how I was describing the point I was trying to make. And the point I was trying to make – and General Dempsey and I spoke after that. And we – I wanted to give that point to him, which was, that was not what I was attempting to say.

What I was attempting to say is, President Obama put out his budget number for the Pentagon first, $500 billion cut, and then they began the strategy review to conform the budget to meet that number.

We think it should have been the other way around. What is the best strategy for our military and so we have a strategy driven budget. Now the result of our review of the president’s budget on the military was we should cut $3 billion from the Pentagon budget over the next 10 years instead of the $500 billion.”

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In an interview with CNN’s Candy Crowley, Rep. Paul Ryan backed away from his comments that questioned whether generals were being honest with Congress by supporting the Obama administration’s defense budget proposal.

Ryan told Crowley that he “misspoke” last week, and said he has called Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and apologized:

“Yes – no, I really misspoke, to be candid with you, Candy. I didn’t mean to make that kind of an impression. So I was clumsy in how I was describing the point I was trying to make. And the point I was trying to make – and General Dempsey and I spoke after that. And we – I wanted to give that point to him, which was, that was not what I was attempting to say.

What I was attempting to say is, President Obama put out his budget number for the Pentagon first, $500 billion cut, and then they began the strategy review to conform the budget to meet that number.

We think it should have been the other way around. What is the best strategy for our military and so we have a strategy driven budget. Now the result of our review of the president’s budget on the military was we should cut $3 billion from the Pentagon budget over the next 10 years instead of the $500 billion.”

This should put that matter to rest, though it was an unfortunate unforced error for Ryan to make the same week he rolled out his budget plan. The proposal is enough of a magnet for criticism on its own without the additional controversy. Ryan wasn’t necessarily wrong in his assertion, but putting the generals on the spot like that is unhelpful, and of course they’re going to stand by their original testimony. Whatever military brass is telling Ryan behind the scenes, and I don’t doubt it’s critical of the president’s proposals, this was a losing way for him to frame the argument.

But Ryan was right to steer the conversation back to the real issue, which is that the president wrote down a budget cut number and asked the Pentagon to meet it. As Republicans have been arguing, that’s a risky way to handle reductions. Few would say the defense budget should be exempt from scrutiny and potential cuts, but they should be with security as the priority, not an arbitrary number handed down by the administration.

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Defense Burden Isn’t Getting Lighter

In a great op-ed at Fox News, Mackenzie Eaglen points out the degree to which Barack Obama’s passion for underfunding the Pentagon is at odds with America’s defense obligations. In March of last year, “for the first time, according to the Pentagon’s Transportation Command chief, every combatant commander had a priority one mission requiring the help of the Air Force,” she notes. Even with an administration whose first foreign-policy priority is to curtail intervention abroad, air power was maxed out.

And, in historical terms, it didn’t take much: Leading from behind in Libya, the surge in Afghanistan, support in Japan after the tsunami, and air support for Obama’s trip to South America. We did it all and we did it well but unless you believe in the end of humanitarian disaster and international conflict, America’s defense load is never going to lighten to the point that the Obama budget envisions. Instead, we’ll just be unable to carry it.

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In a great op-ed at Fox News, Mackenzie Eaglen points out the degree to which Barack Obama’s passion for underfunding the Pentagon is at odds with America’s defense obligations. In March of last year, “for the first time, according to the Pentagon’s Transportation Command chief, every combatant commander had a priority one mission requiring the help of the Air Force,” she notes. Even with an administration whose first foreign-policy priority is to curtail intervention abroad, air power was maxed out.

And, in historical terms, it didn’t take much: Leading from behind in Libya, the surge in Afghanistan, support in Japan after the tsunami, and air support for Obama’s trip to South America. We did it all and we did it well but unless you believe in the end of humanitarian disaster and international conflict, America’s defense load is never going to lighten to the point that the Obama budget envisions. Instead, we’ll just be unable to carry it.

The administration’s unprecedented defense cuts mean an unprecedented handicap for the U.S. Air Force, the hardest hit of all the armed services. “Today’s Air Force faces serious challenges: a rapidly shrinking size of its inventory and the slow loss of its cutting-edge capabilities,” Eaglen writes. And Obama’s much-vaunted Asian pivot will be DOA at this rate. “As the Obama administration looks increasingly to the Pacific, it is failing to ensure that it will have enough resources for its new strategy. At a time when the U.S. military desperately needs next-generation technologies to meet the challenges posed by proliferating precision munitions and anti-access and denial capabilities, the administration has repeatedly chosen to delay, reduce, or even kill most of the military’s high-tech modernization programs.”

Forget the sci-fi weapons. Conventional resources are disappearing. In the Vietnam era, we had over 500 B-2 bombers. Today we have 20.

You don’t have to be a warmonger to do math.

We’re entering an age of disorienting global chaos. At the same time the Obama administration is enforcing unprecedented defense cuts.  The volatility in Iran, the Arab world, Russia, and North Korea isn’t going to abate because Americans want it to. And those are just the places we can currently imagine erupting.  The harder challenges are going to come from corners and parties we’ve not been paying attention to. We could be in for a day that makes March 2011 look like a beach vacation. When America can’t rise to it, we’ll find ourselves in a different world.

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