Last week, the government confirmed that Kayla Mueller had died while in the custody of ISIS. In the weeks prior, we learned about the brutal murders of three innocent people -- the beheading of two Japanese citizens and the immolation of a Jordanian pilot. That followed news that Russia was stepping up its aggression in Ukraine, which followed the overthrow of the Yemeni government by an Iranian proxy, which followed the Charlie Hebdo killings, which followed the North Korean cyber attack on an American company. The Pentagon has announced more troop deployments to the Middle East. Boko Haram is still kidnapping people in Nigeria, tensions are still high in the South and East China Seas, and Iran is still positioned to develop a nuclear bomb. China continues its massive military build-up, which is shifting the balance of power in its favor in the Western Pacific.
What more needs to happen before our leaders begin to take the defense budget seriously?
The Obama Administration has sent its FY 2016 defense budget to Congress. It contains a modest increase, but only when measured against the current baseline, and that baseline is almost $100 billion less than the amount that the Administration said, only four years ago, it would need to spend on defense in FY 2016.
That’s because since 2011, the government has -- with full knowledge of the consequences -- funded defense at a level that it knows is far less than needed to protect the vital interests of the United States.
In the spring of 2011, then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, after two years of paring back Pentagon spending, offered a ten-year budget with modest annual increases for his department. The increases didn’t even keep up with inflation, but they would at least have allowed the Defense Department to maintain its end strength, begin building up the Navy, and start to recapitalize its inventories after ten years of hard fighting.
Within a few months, President Obama proposed in a speech to cut $400 billion dollars from his own recently submitted budget. Later in the same year, he signed the Budget Control Act and sequester, which together imposed caps on defense spending that cut a trillion dollars from the Gates’s budget. There was no pretense that these cuts were warranted or even tolerable; in fact, at the same time as Congress and the President were enacting the cuts, the new secretary of defense Leon Panetta said that they would be “devastating”, and General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said that they were “like shooting ourselves in the head.”
They were correct. When the Pentagon is squeezed for money, it will typically cut first force structure and then modernization budgets; the last thing it cuts is day-to-day readiness, the ability of the current force to carry out its current missions. When the 2011 cuts fully hit, the Defense Department was forced to take the money from readiness. All of the services cut training and maintenance. The process created a backlog which still exists today. Since then, the Department has been cutting modernization programs and end strength. The Army, for example, is scheduled to shrink to pre-WWII levels.
The monstrous irony of the cuts is that they will end up costing money. At some point, the government will have to begin repairing the damage to the armed forces. That will take years and will certainly cost more than if the reductions had not occurred, just as the Reagan buildup in the 1980s cost more than it should have because the military was hollowed out during the Carter years. So the effect of the cuts is this: They have masked the size of the short term deficit -- taking some of the pressure off Congress to address the real budgetary challenges -- while increasing the longer term fiscal shortfall, unraveling American power, and compromising the credibility and security of the United States.
Irresponsibility of this magnitude is unprecedented, even in Washington. Senator John McCain was right when, in his speech to the Munich Security Conference, he referred to the “collective insanity of sequestration—arbitrary defense cuts that all of our military leaders testified to Congress two weeks ago are putting American and allied lives at risk.”