Drawing down the military after a military conflict is always difficult. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States did a miserable job, leaving the military high and dry, as we discovered when the Korean War began. We seem about to do the same thing in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, the current drawdown is made worse by the battle over the federal budget and sequestration. Furthermore, the old agreement that defense is a non-partisan issue is gone. The Democrats appear primarily worried about social programs, while an important part of the Republican Party is isolationist. One general said that the collaboration of the of “Blue Dog” Democrats and internationalist Republicans has been replaced by liberal Democrats and isolationist Republicans — tea partiers. The problem, he added, is that “Their views are dramatically opposed and there is no coalition in either the House or the Senate that will come to the aid of the armed forces.”
Indeed, sequestration exists because we lack the old coalition. On the civilian side, the cuts are spread out over a number agencies and programs. The situation is different — and particularly difficult — for the Pentagon.
Sequestration has already done serious damage to the military. For example, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff told Congress, “If America expects the Air Force to dominate the skies in future conflicts, modernization and recapitalization are not options.” The Marine Corps is likewise upset at what sequestration is doing to its forces. A senior Marine general told Congress that fighter squadrons “face the biggest challenge with regard to funding reductions and depot maintenance backlogs.
The next stage of sequestration, which is scheduled to take effect in January, will take another $50 billion out of the Pentagon budget. It could be averted if Republicans and Democrats agree on a budget. These cuts also involve personnel. For example, the Army earlier announced that it was cutting 70,000 personnel over the next five years. More recently it announced that 42,000 soldiers would be cut in the next two years.
Sequestration has already hurt military readiness. The chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, told a crowd at Norfolk, one of the Navy’s most important home ports for aircraft carriers, that he could not guarantee that the port would remain open. “You have to go where the money is, and carriers and air wings are quite expensive.” In addition, sailors have been informed that instead of six-month deployments at sea, their tours will be eight months because of the shortage of ships.
According to the Pentagon’s comptroller, another round of sequestration will result in planes being grounded, ships staying in port and ground troops not training. Even President Barack Obama sounded the alarm, saying, “It’s emboldened our enemies. And it’s depressed our friends who are looking to us for steady leadership.”
Gen. Ray Odierno, chief of staff of the Army, said he fears getting the order to deploy troops abroad because the Army has only two brigades combat-ready. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta echoed Odierno’s remark: “I think our readiness has been badly damaged. We’ve got 12 combat squadrons that have been grounded. Half of the Air Force is not combat ready. We’ve got ships that are not being deployed. We’ve got training rotations that have been canceled… All of this is impacting our readiness and our ability to handle a major crisis outside of Afghanistan.”
Finally, it is worth noting that these cutbacks also are hurting the big corporations that build highly complex warships, aircraft and tanks. Passing budgets for only months at a time makes it impossible for the military to plan and for the corporations to conclude agreements on the manufacture of weapon systems.
It is probably asking too much to expect congressional Democrats and Republicans — and the White House — to realize that the first and most important task of our government is to provide security. That means abroad as well as at home.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.