Congress Must Stop the Decline of Our Military Readiness
Here's what President Obama's final defense spending request should have included.
Following the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., President Barack Obama appeared to take a tougher tone against our enemies, making repeated public statements about all he was doing to counter the rise of ISIS and keep us safe. Regrettably, the defense budget he released today confirms that was all just empty rhetoric.
Specifically, the president’s fiscal 2017 budget request for national security and defense illustrates just how little he understands about what it takes to keep us safe and defend America’s place in the world. Now is the time for Congress to get serious about stopping the decline of our military readiness and ending the false choice—created by the Obama administration—between keeping America's technical edge and maintaining a ready force.
First, let’s examine the numbers. The president admits we face many grave dangers today, yet the overall funding for the Department of Defense is $2.3 billion less than it was last year. And if you discount additional war funding, the president has requested a staggering $10.3 billion dollars less to sustain a military that is undergoing a manning, readiness, and modernization crisis—all in an time of elevated threat levels.
This budget is wholly ignorant of the very real threats to our security and our enemies are taking notice. Russia, identified by virtually every advisor to the president as the preeminent threat to the U.S., is attempting to rewrite the last 30 years of history by threatening our allies in Europe with massive military exercises that mimic invading sovereign nations. They are also deploying intermediate range nuclear weapons in Europe’s back yard and nuclear blackmail by targeting NATO allies such as Denmark if they join the U.S. missile defense shield.
Meanwhile, China is pursuing a multi-domain military build-up in the Western Pacific by making sandcastles in the South China Sea, which, along with air, naval, and missile architecture, will serve as a platform to gain air superiority, assert control of the sea, and threaten our regional bases and allies.
And both Russia and China are beefing up their nuclear capabilities far beyond normal levels, which threatens to undermine America’s strategic enterprise. Russia’s nuclear posture is inviting instability and miscalculation as Moscow violates the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, testing and possibly deploying missiles with ranges meant to target and blackmail European capitals. Similarly, if it has not already, China will likely field JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles soon that will allow them to target American cities, further eroding America’s nuclear deterrent.
Worse yet, Iran—the world’s largest state-sponsor of terror—continues to develop ballistic missiles that threaten U.S. forces and our allies in the Middle East. This rogue regime is an accelerant, if not the source of, every conflict in that region with malign influence today in five Middle Eastern capitals. Lastly, we cannot forget the global jihadist syndicate, led by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, that attacks western homelands, including America, and fuels conflict throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.
Read more: Three Reasons the 2017 Defense Budget Won’t Be Enough (And How to Fix It)
These are complex, unconventional threats. Confronting them will require a mix of asymmetric solutions supported by a credible conventional force that denies our enemies the freedom to act in any domain, as well as a nuclear force that can reliably punish our strategic adversaries. Unfortunately, today our military is at a breaking point. Our soldiers and marines, fighter and bomber squadrons, submarines and aircraft carriers, and modernized nuclear forces simply cannot confront current threats. Former Army Secretary John McHugh recently testified that Army readiness is at the “ragged edge” of being able to execute ongoing missions. Air Force readiness is so poor that the president was forced to acknowledge the manpower shortage in this budget—but he still didn’t give them enough. And the Navy will experience the first prolonged aircraft carrier gap in the Arabian Gulf since 2007, as well as periodic gaps in the Western Pacific, two key theaters. Yet the president’s budget merely seeks to manage these declines rather than begin to reverse them. As a comparison, look back 25 years ago to 1991. At the beginning of Desert Storm, we had almost two million active duty members, all reporting excellent readiness levels. That’s 700,000 more troops than today. Our technological capabilities, including stealth and precision guided munitions, far surpassed the rest of the world. Today we have fewer assets, for example 55 fighter squadrons versus 134 in 1991, as our peer competitors inch closer to technological parity.
A better path would be one that I outlined a year ago: to resource and build a military that is driven by our strategic interests and the threats we face, not one that conforms to arbitrary budget caps put in place five years ago. While key investments in game-changing technologies can offset the asymmetric capabilities of our adversaries, until some of these technologies mature, we must substitute finesse with brute force. This means maintaining a sizable, well-equipped force.
In addition, we should reinvigorate America’s nuclear triad by expeditiously moving ahead with acquisition of the Long Range Strike Bomber and the Long Range Standoff weapon. Combined with nuclear warhead modernization and resurrecting and sustaining nuclear weapons design capabilities, these actions would send an important signal about nuclear deterrence.
We should also invest more in platforms that will defeat adversaries’ anti-access/area denial capabilities. This means buying more attack and guided missile submarines to better match our adversaries numerically. We need to also maintain sea control by increasing the Navy’s aircraft carrier capacity by a third to at least allow a second carrier to patrol the Western Pacific. And we should significantly increase ship-to-shore capabilities ensuring we can transition when the fight moves from sea to land.
We should also advance the strike and surveillance battle network to dominate the enemy’s airspace by persisting with a modernization of all of our fighter aircraft, whether sustaining the F-35 buy or continuing to modernize fourth generation fighters such as the F-16. This also means dramatically increasing funding for programs such as the extended range version of the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile and proceeding apace with acquiring munitions such as the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile. Importantly, all of these weapons would be blind without the overlapping GPS, radar, and electronic warfare platforms such as the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System.
In an ideal world we could protect and defend ourselves at safe distance from our enemies. But the reality is our soldiers will sometimes find themselves in close range to our targets. We should ensure these soldiers are equipped to carry out their missions by recommitting to the Army’s Future of Vertical Lift program and developing a true vision for the future of armored warfare. The Army must also prioritize infantry combat by buying and fielding small arms suitable to the contemporary battlefield and eliminating acquisition paradigms that only solidify or expand the defense bureaucracy while increasing costs to taxpayers. For instance, it makes little sense that a $350 polymer pistol currently takes years to get into the hands of our troops.
The simple truth is that the American military has always been the best and the brightest. We were our enemies’ worst nightmare and our allies’ favorite friend. Unfortunately, the impact of President Obama’s budgets and policies over that last seven years on military readiness means that is no longer the case. And this budget is no different. We cannot afford to waste time debating base defense funds versus overseas contingency operations, we need to ensure our military is prepared to stop our enemies and protect our national security.