At what point do we—the institution and our nation—lose our soldiers’ trust? The trust that we will provide them the right resources—the training and equipment—to properly prepare them and lead them into harm’s way. Trust that we will appropriately take care of our soldiers, our civilians, and their families, who so selflessly sacrifice so much.
This was the question Army chief of staff Gen. Raymond Odierno posed to the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 28, and it’s one that expresses a point of view rarely considered in Washington: Budgets are moral documents; they express our government’s priorities and what we value as a nation.
By this standard, we care less and less about our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines as military professionals. We have lavished benefits—pay, housing, especially health care—on them endlessly, and we “honor their service” without irony. But we have shortchanged their ability to fight, depriving them of sufficient resources—of personnel, equipment, and training—first to win the wars to which we sent them, then to prepare them for the next conflict.
The 2011 Budget Control Act stands as the moment when we civilians dismissed the needs of the military from our minds. In the divided government created by the 2010 midterm elections (and with us still), President Obama and the Democrats rallied around their core commitment to social entitlements, in particular the health care law they’d sought for a generation, while congressional Republicans vowed never to raise taxes. One of the few points of bipartisan agreement was that defense spending was a chip to be casually played in a game of budgetary poker.
Both the White House and Congress have been unmoved by the consequences of their actions. Even before 2011, the Obama administration had slashed something approaching $500 billion from Bush-era defense plans; the BCA, with its “sequestration” provision, might eliminate another $1 trillion. Under the BCA, the military is shrinking rapidly. Active-duty Army troop strength will fall to about 420,000, barely more than half what it was in 1990. The Navy, once a fleet of 600 ships, is on course to drift down to the mid-200s, while the Air Force, which once had 188 fighter squadrons, will soon have just 49.
Not even the reality of a more violent and chaotic world, it seems, can undo the underlying bargain of the BCA. Even if the administration were right that Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda has been suppressed, the combination of its affiliates and ideological allies in Yemen, in Syria and Iraq, and across large swaths of Africa is hardly an improvement. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine may be a challenge to the international system and the peace of Europe, but not to the stability of the budget deal. Nor do the Chinese military’s boat-and-plane-bumping antics or Beijing’s aggressive and destabilizing behavior toward our allies in the region create any groundswell for a Pacific “pivot” with any muscle.
But if there is any one measure of our elected leaders’ indifference to upholding the moral compact needed to sustain a volunteer military, it is the decline in combat readiness. The service chiefs regularly testify to Congress and report up the executive chain of command on the state of their services, to little effect. A few highlights from the January 28 hearing, held to “receive testimony on the impact of the Budget Control Act of 2011 and sequestration on national security”:
- Gen. Odierno: “Readiness has been degraded to its lowest level in 20 years. [Two years ago], only 10 percent of our brigade combat teams were ready.”
- Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert: “The Navy’s fleet readiness will likely not recover from the ship and aircraft maintenance backlogs until about 2018.”
- Marine Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr.: “ [A]pproximately half of our nondeployed units . . . are suffering personnel, equipment, and training shortfalls. . . . In a major conflict, those shortfalls will result in a delayed response and/or additional casualties.”