By Walter Pincus
It’s time for Congress to trim defense spending rationally — not through across-the-board cuts — and on Thursday the Joint Chiefs of Staff offered a list of where to start.
I don’t agree with some of the choices laid out at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Nor do I believe lawmakers will do anything more than continue to throw several billions extra into the defense pot for projects that generate election security more than national security.
It’s an old-fashioned but a wise move to look at the current threats and the foreseeable ones as a key standard for setting defense spending. Another is to make sure funds are spent on real rather than imagined threats.
As usual, the Joint Chiefs believe, as Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno put it, that “this is the most uncertain [time] I’ve ever seen the international security environment.”
Uncertainty, however, does not require preparation for World War III, or a replay of the Cold War. The services also can’t provide everything the combatant commanders around the world want.
Acknowledging that there is a drawdown of forces after a decade of war, Odierno recalled the country being unprepared to fight in Korea and Vietnam. “We cannot allow that to happen again,” he said.
But recall with each foreign engagement the number of U.S. ground troops sent to fight at any one time has decreased. The Iraq/Afghanistan experience was the longest stretch of American forces in overseas combat in U.S. history, and cumulatively, with repeated tours, involved substantial troops. Even Vietnam, no less Iraq/
Afghanistan, should have taught us that such wars are unwinnable if the goal is to change foreign governments to a U.S. form of democracy.
As former defense secretary Robert M. Gates said in a 2011 speech at West Point, “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General [Douglas] MacArthur so delicately put it.”
Odierno linked the past to the future, noting the Army needed “a capability to do a multiphase, combined arms joint campaign that operates in a very complex environment that includes a conventional opponent, irregular warfare, [and] counterinsurgency. . . . So we have to train our forces to do that.”
He worried that training for open-ended warfare, which was set in the United States for this year, had to be canceled because of budget cuts to training.
The impact? “This means that if these units are called upon to defend South Korea, or to secure chemical and biological weapons in Syria, the commander in chief will be forced to send soldiers into harm’s way who have not trained as an integrated brigade combined arms team,” Odierno said.
The likelihood of those things happening? North Korea did attack South Korea in 1950, but the United States now has a mutual defense treaty with Seoul and more than 20,000 combat troops there. And securing Syrian chemical weapons? A U.N. effort is handling that.
Even the most ardent U.S. supporters of ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are not calling for U.S. troops.
And other threats? Terrorism is being met mainly with intelligence and Special Forces — both have gotten more funding.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces are around the world. As Odierno noted, “As we sit here today, more than 70,000 U.S. Army soldiers are deployed to contingency operations, with nearly 50,000 soldiers in Afghanistan alone. . . . There are more than 87,000 soldiers foreign-stationed across the globe in nearly 120 countries.”
One of Adm. Jonathan Greenert’s main concerns as chief of naval operations is the replacement for the 14 Ohio-class strategic submarines: the SSBN-X, which will carry 16 missiles, each capable of carrying five nuclear warheads. That promises to consume a big chunk of the shipbuilding budget, but they keep the Navy as a player in the nuclear weapons game.
According to the Government Accountability Office, the Navy estimates the first of 12 new strategic subs will cost $7.4 billion, but the service is trying to reduce the cost of the rest from the estimated $5.4 billion to $4.9 billion. That kind of spending will have an impact on Navy shipbuilding through the 2030s.
Leave it to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to bring up the uncomfortable reality of defense procurement overruns, focusing initially on an added $500 million needed for the CVN-78 — the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier whose cost overruns have grown to $2 billion.
McCain went on to ask Air Force Chief of Staff Gen.l Mark Welsh III: “Has anybody been fired because of the cost overruns of the F-35? I don’t think so.” As of March 2013, GAO had put the F-35 cost overruns at $1.2 billion.
My favorites for reduction, based on future threats, are obviously the number of replacement carriers we are planning to build, as well as the number of strategic submarines and F-35 stealthy fifth-generation fighters.
On Thursday I will take up the Joint Chiefs’ frank discussion of the need to cut personnel costs.