One of the most far-reaching problems the United States faces is Congress’s intent ion to cut the military budget. Sequestration has led to cutbacks in a number of programs, and furloughs of civilian Defense Depart ment workers have cut their pay by 20 percent. Further cuts will only exacerbate problems and have serious implications for U.S. security and foreign policy.
Teddy Roosevelt, who said the United States should “walk softly but carry a big stick,” knew what he was talking about. The world remains a vicious place where little quarter is given. As a diplomat charged with working to improve our relations with other governments, I saw the veracity of Roosevelt’s maxim over and over again. The word of the U.S. Government meant something, primarily because we were a superpower with a strong economy, a stable political system and most importantly, a military to be reckoned with.
Don’t get me wrong; some cuts are reasonable. There is waste in the Defense Department. Besides, we are coming out of two wars, and that justifies some drawdowns. The problem is that the cuts imposed were not well thought out and will have a devastating effect on our military readiness
So what is the government demanding in terms of cuts? First, sequestration is taking a $37 billion toll on the Pentagon this year, and another cut of $52 billion is in the offing. Even if sequestration is halted, the military will have to continue cutting until $500 billion in federal spending. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel noted that the Pentagon is taking $487 billion in cuts as the result of the Budget Control Act of 2011.
One of the highlights of this process has been Hagel’s behavior. Given his military background, he knows that the military expects straight talk when someone is bringing bad news. He has traveled to a number of Army and Navy bases to make sure personnel understand what is happening. He hopes his comments hit home with Congress. He hopes lawmakers understand how serious matters are and restore funding to the Pentagon.
Hagel has made it clear that every office or unit in the armed forces — including his own office — will absorb cuts. As he put it, “I expect these cuts to not only save money, but also to result in organizations that are more effective and efficient as well as more agile and versatile.” To Hagel, this means cutting staffs in favor of focusing on training and equipping troops, sustaining vital programs and taking care of military families. Hagel considers military readiness essential, and that is where money will be channeled. “You can’t buy back readiness” once it has been lost, he has told military personnel. “You all have fought and put your lives on the line for the country. You did so with the expectation that you would be given the equipment, training and support you needed to succeed.”
Hagel also is considering some drastic measures. For example, he mentioned a freeze on promotions. Promotions in some areas are hard to come by, and this would make them even more elusive. Halting recruitment would turn the military upside down. The men and women who run the recruiting depots are highly trained and would presumably be transferred. Changes of station would be halted except in the most serious cases. Discretionary bonuses also would be cut, as would special hazardous duty pay. The impact on morale should be obvious.
When it comes to cuts in staff, the focus will be primarily on civilian positions. Having served in the Pentagon, I know how hard many of these individuals work. What does one do if one is 45 years old and on the street? Workers cannot retire at that age, and many, if not most, have families.
The timing of these cuts is particularly unfortunate in part because China’s armed forces are growing more formidable. Washington recognizes the increased threat China presents. Indeed, we have begun to shift assets to the Pacific. But senior military officers’ recent comments have made clear that they are cutting back on training and that ships are being kept in port rather than being put to sea.
My son graduated from the Naval Academy, and at the end of his five years of obligated service, he decided to leave the Navy. I thought he was making a mistake. He would now have around 15 years in, but little or no future. I admit that given the bleak outlook for the U.S. Navy, he was right.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.