A Rallying Call for Our Nation’s Defense

By FPI Board Member Eric Edelman and Former U.S. Senator Jim Talent

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.”

Last year, Congress created a bipartisan Independent Panel to review the condition and future plans of the Department of Defense. The panel was co-chaired by former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and retired General John Abizaid. To no one’s surprise, the panel unanimously condemned both the cuts and the process by which they were enacted, finding that “today the Department is facing major readiness shortfalls that will, absent a decisive reversal of course, create the possibility of a hollow force that loses its best people, underfunds procurement, and shortchanges innovation. The fact that each service is experiencing degradations in so many areas at once is especially troubling at a time of growing security challenges.”

Such reports are usually quite careful in their language and guarded in their recommendations. This one wasn’t. In the Introduction to the report, the panel stated that. “in fact—and this bears emphasis—we believe that unless recommendations of the kind we make in this Report are adopted, the Armed Forces of the United States will in the near future be at high risk of not being able to accomplish the National Defense Strategy.”

The panel recommended that 1) funds be appropriated to restore near term readiness, 2) the Department develop a plan based on realistic budgets for the future, and 3) in the meantime Congress return to at least the budget baseline which Secretary Gates proposed in 2011, which was the last time the Department was allowed to engage in anything approaching real defense planning.

In sum, it was a stunning rebuke of the defense policies of the last four years. For a more thorough discussion, see here.

Until recently, Congress had at least a political excuse for not removing the caps on defense. The House and Senate were controlled by different parties, making common action on anything quite difficult, and national security was not a priority issue in the minds of the public. 

But the environment has changed. The Republicans now have complete control of Congress, and the events of the last year have awakened the American people to the risks that are accumulating around the world. National security will be a major issue in the next presidential election. Candidates of both parties are quite likely to attack the defense policy of the last four years, for two reasons. First, that policy is a poster child for exactly the kind of bipartisan Washington dysfunction that voters hate. Second, no one who contemplates exercising the responsibilities of the presidency, and who is not named Barack Obama, wants to try to defend American security with a military which, in the panel’s words, will be at “high risk of not being able to execute the national defense strategy."

Senator Marco Rubio and Governor Bobby Jindal have already given strong speeches condemning the defense cuts; other likely Republican candidates will almost certainly follow suit; and the signs are that Hillary Clinton will also support returning to the Gates’ baseline. Former undersecretary of defense Michele Flournoy, who heads the list of likely defense secretaries in a Hillary Clinton administration, was a member of the panel, supported its report, and has testified and spoken out strongly in favor of its recommendations.

Anyone who reads the Constitution will see right away that “providing for the common defense” is the priority responsibility of the federal government. In fact, it is the government’s only mandatory function; all of the other powers granted to Congress in Article I are permissive in nature, but Article IV of the Constitution states that the government “shall protect the each of them (the States) from invasion.” Neither the states, nor the people in them, are being sufficiently protected now, and the time is drawing near when there will be a political accounting for what has happened. 

The Congressional Republicans now have a chance – probably their final chance -- to take a leadership role on behalf of a strong national defense. They can pass a defense appropriations bill for FY 2016 at substantially above the president’s request, and they can pass a ten year budget which returns defense spending to the Gates’ baseline while at the same time retaining the sequester levels for non-defense spending.  

In other words, the Republicans could fund what the Constitution deems important and otherwise hold the line in the name of fiscal restraint. That would be a conservative budget. More important, it would be the single most consequential act this Congress could take to protect American security during the two years that remain of the Obama Administration.

Jim Talent is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies’ National Security 2020 Project. While serving in the US Senate, he was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Seapower. Ambassador Eric S. Edelman is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He has served in senior positions at the Departments of State and Defense as well as the White House. Both Senator Talent and Ambassador Edelman were members of the Perry/Abizaid National Defense Panel.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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