After several minutes of badgering from Sen. John McCain at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on April 9, Admiral Samuel Locklear admitted that the combination of regularly scheduled defense budget cuts and the “sequestration” provision of the current budget law meant that “in the near term . . . we’re not going to be able to provide the force levels” needed in the Pacific, where Locklear is the top U.S. commander. “The answer to your question,” he admitted to McCain, “is that I can’t do it.”
This is not just a question of ships. The Air Force has announced that it soon will begin grounding about a third of its combat aircraft. “We must implement a tiered readiness concept where only the units preparing to deploy in support of major combat operations like Afghanistan are fully mission capable,” explained Gen. Mike Hostage, head of Air Combat Command. Hostage is only telling a part of the story: The number of planes allocated to Afghanistan is a tiny portion of the fleet. In sum, a third of his planes will be parked (and, no doubt, stripped of parts to keep other aircraft flying), only a handful ready to fight, and the bulk of the fleet—thousands of aircraft—in various stages of disrepair.
The damage to the Army and Marine Corps is also mostly out of sight. Both services will meet their most critical needs, like sustaining operations in Afghanistan, by shortchanging units and equipment left behind. Again, that’s the bulk of their forces. And because personnel budgets are not included in the sequester, the result will be a lot of soldiers and Marines painting rocks or trying to stay fit instead of actually training for their missions. By the end of the summer—that is, as the end of government’s fiscal year approaches—the effects will be substantial.
The cumulative effect will be that the U.S. military will not be well prepared for any unforeseen contingency, or in fact for a foreseeable contingency, such as North Korea and Iran present on a daily basis, that would require a substantial response force. In the event of a crisis, the Pentagon would have two unpleasant choices: wait until larger forces could be properly manned, equipped, and trained before deploying them, or send unready troops into harm’s way. Such was the unhappy story of Task Force Smith in Korea in 1950.
The disconnect between geopolitical realities and domestic political realities is stunning and, in this season of budget rollouts, apparently growing. None of the actors in the Washington drama—not House Republicans, Senate Democrats, or the Obama administration—has made a proposal that puts national security before partisan interest. All pretend that sequestration won’t happen again, yet all seem equally enthusiastic, looking forward to the 2014 elections, about repeating the game of political chicken that gave us sequestration this year.
Too many Republicans, distrustful of sequester horror stories, are quick to dismiss statements like Locklear’s as bureaucratic posturing. In fact, today’s brass are driven by a combination of a can-do ethos and a desperate desire to avoid being characterized as insubordinate, a neuralgia that the Obama White House is happy to exploit. It took all of McCain’s stubbornness and dog-fighting skills to get Locklear in his sights.
On the other hand, the president, the commander in chief, is being willfully negligent. Obama is proposing to avoid sequestration primarily by raising about $700 billion in new taxes. But he also proposes $100 billion in defense spending cuts—about a quarter of what sequestration would take—in the years after he leaves office. In other words, the president wants further reductions in U.S. military power regardless of the outcome of any budget negotiations or sequestration. At the same time, by ignoring the “caps” in current law, he can present a budget for 2014 that appears to increase defense spending by 10 percent. It would be clever if it weren’t mendacious.
Whether the rest of the world will sit still while America sorts itself out is an open question. A world where the United States “can’t do it” will be a very different world, one less peaceful, less prosperous, and less free than it is now.