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Heed the Historical Warnings of Post-War Budget Cuts

Want to know how devastating post-war budget cuts can be? The Civil War is a good example. By Gordon Sullivan

The biggest danger facing today's military is not terrorism, global instability or the proliferation of weapons. It's the danger of our ignorance if we let history repeat itself. In our zeal to quickly cut federal spending we have accepted an increased level of risk to our national security because of unwillingness by our political leaders to think twice before dropping the ax.

We’ve been in this situation before, and we didn’t like the outcome. In 1898, then-Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing wrote about the state of post-Civil War defense policies, noting that many people believed there would never be another war. “Pacifism was predominant,” he wrote. “As the national debt had grown, partly as a result of pensions, retrenchment had been the political cry of both parties, and appropriations for defense had been constantly reduced. The people throughout the country were almost exclusively occupied with their own personal affairs to the neglect of such considerations. Nobody listened to those who realized the wisdom of maintaining an adequate army and advocated it.” 

More than 100 years ago, the siren song of reductions in defense manpower was luring the unsuspecting onto the shoals of unpreparedness for future conflict. Pershing’s reflection on post-Civil War defense spending highlights a trend that began just after the American Revolution, and seems to continue driving contemporary decisions. This cycle of readiness followed by unpreparedness has repeated itself all too often throughout our history. Cuts are made with little relationship to reality or logical predictions about future defense requirements. In today’s lexicon, those cuts and reductions are called “sequestration.”

Many national political leaders have been remiss in explaining to the American people why sequestration is so devastating to our national security. Mandating that federal spending cuts come equally from defense and non-defense programs sequestration sounds equitable, except for the fact that the U.S. defense budget represents only 17 percent of all annual federal spending. This disruptive legislation is indicative of a government seemingly unable to function as a responsible democracy. It is patently unresponsive to the needs of a nation that is part of a rapidly changing world in which predicting the future is virtually impossible. It locks the nation into a creaky, slow moving, lockstep budget process that is irresponsible and unaccountable, and ignores the world around it. This phenomenon is well understood in Washington, yet when I ask elected and appointed officials what they are doing to turn this situation around I just get a lot of shoulder shrugging. It is disappointing and worrisome, to say the least.

I shake my head at the drastic cuts in military manpower being contemplated. While that might save money in the short term, what will be the future cost in blood? Sadly, after almost every conflict the “peace dividend” left our armed forces unbalanced and unready -- the ultimate consequence of which was an enormous loss of life in the inevitable next conflict. After World War I, where Pershing headed the American Expeditionary Force, manpower plummeted because there were to be “no more wars.” So when World War II inconveniently disrupted that thinking, it took four years to build a well-trained fighting force and another year for it to prevail. After that war, troop levels plummeted again. Then came the Korean War and, predictably, an inadequate force paid heavily. The cycle has continued to repeat: atrophied fighting forces announcing to potential enemies that America’s land forces are too small, so now is the time to challenge U.S. national interests.

Those who refuse to acknowledge that the United States will ever again become involved in a large land operation have set us on a path to a too-small active military force. Urbanization and globalization indicate that future military operations likely will be more manpower intensive, not less. Some believe our land forces can be easily reinforced by just mobilizing our reserves or by simply recruiting more soldiers when needed. Recent history has shown us, however, that it takes the U.S. Army as much as two years to recruit, organize, train and equip a newly formed brigade combat team – that’s not rapid enough in today’s security environment where crises like the Crimea can emerge literally in days (again, think Korea in June 1950) and can fester for years, as in Syria. So, we must rely entirely on the force we have – active, Guard, and reserve. But with the effects of sequestration steadily decreasing the size and readiness of our military, the depth of the force and its ability to mobilize is being severely degraded. The United States must have a military force that is large enough to deter potential enemies, and it must be manned with the best people – people who are properly compensated for the rigors of a profession that is unlike any other and brings with it enormous stressors on both themselves and their families. 

Sequestration is also having a devastating effect on the defense industrial base. In both the Defense Department’s own industrial facilities and in commercial industry, sequestration cuts are putting our ability to equip a mobilized force at growing risk. I am alarmed that there is a gross lack of awareness among national leaders how dire this situation is becoming.  

And sequestration has also led to growing international doubt about America’s credibility as an ally and partner. I am convinced we must be seen as a reliable ally - if not, we are on a very slippery slope to disaster. Credibility can only be found in the perception of strength and national resolve to meet our treaty commitments with balanced, trained and ready forces. 

Similarly, adversaries are most certainly watching the steady decline of American military power and will be tempted to take more and more risk to challenge U.S. leadership. We are already seeing this. Moreover, with the shrinking of America’s military strength comes the increased chance of strategic miscalculation by potential enemies. A credible force – not just a reasonably sized force – provides a deterrent effect. 

All of this explains the dire warnings we hear from uniformed and civilian defense officials about our military's decreasing ability to carry out its mission. Why don't elected and appointed officials own up to this misguided management of our national defense and fix it? This time let’s not repeat history. Let’s maintain our best weapon – our fighting men and women – in the numbers and quality that will keep us ready when inevitability brings us the next war.

Ret. Army Gen. Gordon Sullivan is president of the Association of the United States Army and was the 32nd Army Chief of Staff.